Updated: Jul 21, 2022
Liberal Distortions of History Aid Right-Wing Crusade This is Part II of a three-part series By Geoff Mirelowitz and Argiris Malapanis
The first part of this series outlined the insidious character of the right-wing crusade against critical race theory. One of its aims is to prevent teaching essential facts of U.S. history; particularly those related to chattel slavery, the U.S. Civil War, Radical Reconstruction, Jim Crow segregation, the civil rights movement, and the institutionalized racism prevalent in the United States to this day.
Refuting this right-wing campaign, however, has been weakened by false arguments promoted by a variety of liberals. These academics, journalists, or others make assertions that do not meet the test of evidence. Some go further to offer interpretations of history that do not stand up to careful examination. Other stalwart opponents of racism do not share these views.
These arguments include erroneous claims or exaggerations of facts regarding the character of the American Revolution of 1776, and the reasons for the war for independence against the British monarchy, put forward by the New York Times 1619 Project. They also include notions such as “embracing white guilt,” or “renouncing white privilege,” as tools to combat racism.
The debate on the 1619 Project has been wide ranging. Among critics of its weaknesses is Leslie M. Harris, a professor of history at Northwestern University and author of In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863 and Slavery and the University: Histories and Legacies.
Harris’ criticisms are noteworthy because the Times originally sought her out to fact-check the 1619 Project. Her arguments on this point deserve careful consideration both because she is deeply knowledgeable and because she recognizes the value of much of the 1619 Project, which she demonstrates is weakened by its false claims. Her discourse is measured, factual, and speaks for itself. It deserves more attention than it has received to date.
The 1619 Project rejected fact-checking
“On August 19 of last year  I listened in stunned silence as Nikole Hannah-Jones, a reporter for the New York Times, repeated an idea that I had vigorously argued against with her fact-checker: that the patriots fought the American Revolution in large part to preserve slavery in North America.”
That’s how Harris opened her article titled “I Helped Fact-Check the 1619 Project. The Times Ignored Me,” which appeared in the March 6, 2020, issue of Politico magazine.
“Hannah-Jones and I were on Georgia Public Radio to discuss the path-breaking New York Times 1619 Project, a major feature about the impact of slavery on American history, which she had spearheaded,” Harris wrote. “The Times had just published the special 1619 edition of its magazine, which took its name from the year 20 Africans arrived in the colony of Virginia—a group believed to be the first enslaved Africans to arrive in British North America,” she explained.
“Weeks before, I had received an email from a New York Times research editor,” Harris continued. “Because I’m an historian of African American life and slavery, in New York, specifically, and the pre-Civil War era more generally, she wanted me to verify some statements for the project. At one point, she sent me this assertion: ‘One critical reason that the colonists declared their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery in the colonies, which had produced tremendous wealth. At the time there were growing calls to abolish slavery throughout the British Empire, which would have badly damaged the economies of colonies in both North and South.’
“I vigorously disputed the claim. Although slavery was certainly an issue in the American Revolution, the protection of slavery was not one of the main reasons the 13 Colonies went to war,” Harris noted.
“Despite my advice, the Times published the incorrect statement about the American Revolution anyway, in Hannah-Jones’ introductory essay,” Harris pointed out. “In addition, the paper’s characterizations of slavery in early America reflected laws and practices more common in the antebellum era than in colonial times and did not accurately illustrate the varied experiences of the first generation of enslaved people that arrived in Virginia in 1619.
“Both sets of inaccuracies worried me, but the Revolutionary War statement made me especially anxious,” explained Harris.
“Overall, the 1619 Project is a much-needed corrective,” Harris continued, “to the blindly celebratory histories that once dominated our understanding of the past—histories that wrongly suggested racism and slavery were not a central part of U.S. history. I was concerned that critics would use the overstated claim to discredit the entire undertaking. So far, that’s exactly what has happened.”
Harris elaborated: “A letter signed by five academic historians claimed that the 1619 Project got some significant elements of history wrong, including the claim that the Revolutionary War was fought to preserve slavery. They have demanded that the New York Times issue corrections on these points, which the paper has so far refused to do. For her part, Hannah-Jones has acknowledged that she overstated her argument about slavery and the Revolution in her essay, and that she plans to amend this argument for the book version of the project, under contract with Random House.”
The Times and Hannah-Jones stick to their guns
In November 2021, One World, an imprint of Random House, published the book, The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story.
Hannah-Jones’ original essay appears in the book with few modifications of content—the main one being replacement of “the colonists” with “some of the colonists.” The Times’ editors and the essayist, however, largely double down on the substance of their original argument that a main reason for the U.S. anti-colonial revolt was safeguarding chattel slavery.
“[O]ne of the primary reasons some of the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery,” says Hannah-Jones in the new book. “The truth is that we may have never revolted against Britain if some of the founders had not understood that slavery empowered them to do so; nor if they had not believed that independence was required in order for the institution to continue unmolested.”
We should note here that the authors of the 1619 Project are not pioneers in promoting this false view that the U.S. war of independence was, in a fundamental way, a reactionary revolt.
Historian Gerald Horne outlined this view five years earlier. Horne, who is professor of history and African American studies at the University of Houston, is the author of two books: The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America and Race to Revolution: The U.S. and Cuba During Slavery and Jim Crow. Horne “argues the so-called Revolutionary War was actually a conservative effort by American colonists to protect their system of slavery,” said a June 27, 2014, story by Democracy Now, headlined “ ‘Counter-Revolution of 1776’: Was U.S. Independence War a Conservative Revolt in Favor of Slavery?”
Such claims are wrong and thus provide cannon fodder for attacks by the right wing, as Harris explained.
“The criticism of the Times has emboldened some conservatives to assert that such ‘revisionist history’ is flat-out illegitimate,” Harris noted in her 2020 Politico essay. “The project was even criticized on the floor of the U.S. Senate when, during the impeachment trial, President Donald Trump’s lawyer cited the historians’ letter to slam the project,” she said.
U.S. not founded to protect slavery, but slavery central to its story
“But the debates playing out now on social media and in op-eds between supporters and detractors of the 1619 Project misrepresent both the historical record and the historical profession,” Harris noted. “The United States was not, in fact, founded to protect slavery—but the Times is right that slavery was central to its story.”
Malcolm X confirmed this from a different angle in a powerful speech known as “Message to the Grass Roots,” which he delivered in 1963 in Detroit. There he spoke about the meaning of the term “revolution.”
“Look at the American Revolution of 1776,” Malcolm said. “That revolution was for what? For land. Why did they want land? Independence. How was it carried out? Bloodshed. Number one, it was based on land, the basis of independence. And the only way they could get it was bloodshed.”
No serious person believes Malcolm didn’t notice that the American Revolution left slavery intact. It did, however, achieve independence and land for those who revolted against the British monarchy.
What led to the first American revolution?
Liberal theorists argue that revolutions come about “not when all the conditions for their occurrence—from the economic to the individual—converge to the breaking point, but because of mistaken judgments by one side or the other,” wrote Marxist scholar George Novack in a 1975 essay titled “Was the Revolution Necessary?”  referring to the first American revolution. “Revolutions are therefore more or less aberrant phenomena,” according to liberal historians, Novack said, “and might be averted if greater wisdom were brought to bear on the situation by representatives of the respective antagonists.”
Marxists take the contrary view “that social phenomena are regulated by their own laws, that the conflict of classes with opposing material interests and aims is the motive force in civilized societies, and that intensification of the class antagonisms logically and irresistibly leads toward a revolutionary showdown in the contest for supremacy,” Novack explained.
In a 1961 essay on the U.S. Civil War, Novack described accurately the origins, accomplishments, and shortcomings of the American revolt against Britain:
“The bourgeois national revolutionary movement in North America had five main tasks to fulfill,” Novack wrote. “These were: (1) to free the American people from foreign domination, (2) to consolidate the separate colonies or states into one nation, (3) to set up a democratic republic, (4) to place state power in the hands of the bourgeoisie, and (5) most important of all, to rid American society of its pre-capitalist encumbrances (Indian tribalism, feudalism, slavery), in order to permit the full and free expansion of capitalist forces of production and exchange.”
The deficiencies of the first American revolution took time to become fully evident, Novack pointed out. At first it seemed that the northern capitalists were entirely satisfied with its outcome. They had succeeded in taking the helm of the new Republic. They governed the new nation together with the southern planters with whom they had waged the war, written the Constitution, and formed the Union.
Southern planters dethroned northern bourgeoisie
The merchants, financiers, and manufacturers, however, proved incapable of maintaining their hegemony. “After a brief though important period in supreme authority during Washington and Adams’ administrations, their direct political representatives were compelled to turn over national leadership to the plantation aristocracy,” Novack said. “The bourgeois conquest of political power had turned out to be premature.”
The inability of the northern bourgeoisie to hold on to its predominant position in the Union illustrated the shortcomings of the 18th century revolution. Objective conditions and material factors explain this turn of events.
Paramount among them was that the fifth and most fundamental task of the revolution—the liquidation of all pre-capitalist social forms—had not been carried out to the end, Novack pointed out. Mercantile capitalist rule fell victim to the economic backwardness of the new nation. The first American revolution unfolded in a colonial country with an economy largely based on agriculture. Capitalist economic development was only in its initial stages. The contradiction between the democratic republic the revolution established and the country’s non-industrialized economy was the main cause for the political downfall of the emerging capitalist class.
The first American revolution was necessary and justified in its aims, Novack explained in his 1975 essay. It became possible as the class antagonism between the oppressive British colonial rule and the nascent American capitalist class reached a breaking point. It was historically progressive. It advanced democratic rights as opposed to the tyrannical rule of an absolute monarch. It was also incomplete in fundamental ways.
As in other bourgeois democratic revolutions, the new nation’s constitution guaranteed above all the rights of the new ruling class, the bourgeoisie, and of its allies, the southern planters. The popular masses won only those rights they could fight for and achieve through their own struggle. The nascent capitalist class—throughout history—has not fought consistently for the rights of others.
Ending slavery was a necessary task because chattel slavery was both a crime against humanity and a “pre-capitalist encumbrance,” to use Novack’s term. It needed to be abolished. But the ideology of white supremacy was firmly established among the European settlers in relation to both the enslaved people and Native Americans. A major component of the forces willing to act to end monarchical tyranny would not act to abolish slavery and those less committed to the slave system did not fight to end it either. The enslaved people could not achieve freedom on their own. Thus, the objective conditions did not yet exist to do what was necessary. The first American revolution, like other bourgeois democratic revolutions, required a second rebellion to fulfill its unfinished tasks.
“Every revolution is limited by the objective realities of its development,” Novack said. “The failure to uproot slavery, which was reinvigorated under the Cotton Kingdom by the expansion of the textile industry and the introduction of the cotton gin, necessitated a second stage of the bourgeois-democratic revolution to accomplish its unfinished historical tasks. And even the Mighty Civil War and Reconstruction did not give equality to the legally emancipated slaves.”
Northern capitalists defeat Radical Reconstruction
Why was genuine equality for Black people still not achieved by the second American Revolution? The answer lies in an accurate understanding of the period in U.S. history known as “Radical Reconstruction,” lasting roughly from 1866 through 1877.
The Civil War ended with the Confederacy completely vanquished and its forces subject to an unconditional surrender to the Union army, which remained in place in the South. However, following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in April 1865, Vice-President Andrew Johnson took over the White House. He attempted to quickly rehabilitate the leaders of the Confederacy and reunite the nation with no guarantees of equality for the formerly enslaved people.
A wing of Johnson’s party known as the Radical Republicans demanded a different policy and took Congressional action to bring it about. They led passage of the 14th and 15th amendments to the constitution, intended to guarantee equal treatment to all citizens and to grant Black males over 21 years of age the right to vote. They also sought, unsuccessfully, to impeach Johnson for his policy of sabotaging the radical goals of reconstruction.
This coincided with enormous advances for Black people, who launched a struggle for the right to own and farm land, as well as for genuine equality under the law. African Americans organized and led armed militias. Radical state governments were established in which Black people played a prominent leadership role.
This history—which remains largely unknown to tens of millions in the U.S.—is told concisely and effectively in the book by Peter Camejo Racism, Revolution, and Reaction, 1861-1877. Other resources on this important period of U.S. History can be found here.
This heroic episode in U.S. history went down to defeat. A central promise of Radical Reconstruction— “40 acres and a mule”— was ultimately denied. That pledge was intended to grant land and the means to work it to African Americans, as opposed to laboring under oppressive conditions for large landholders. Radical state governments were broken up and replaced by conservative forces, including the most racist and violent elements of the old Confederacy.
How did this come about? The forces of the Union army that had crushed the Confederacy refused to act to stop this counterrevolution. The northern capitalist class that controlled the federal government made this decision. The Radical Republicans who led the fight for Radical Reconstruction were ultimately defeated by the majority of the Republican Party; a majority that was not willing to see a genuine land reform or the struggle for real Black equality carried out to the end.
Camejo vividly described what would have been necessary:
“The terror invoked by the minority of white property-owners would have had to be met by the stern countermeasures of the majority. The Black-based militias would have had to be seriously organized and made ready for action. Whenever a band of racist terrorists or nightriders lynched, whipped or otherwise maltreated Blacks, they would have had to be punished in an exemplary manner.
“Hanging a few dozen of the racists on the rampage and expropriating their property would have resulted in a rapid collapse of their aggressions.” From Camejo’s “Racism, Revolution, and Reaction, 1861-1877”
This could only have been accomplished with the decisive support of the federal government and the Union army controlled by the northern capitalist class, which could certainly have done so. The northern bourgeoisie, with the indispensable aid of the Black masses, had already crushed the slave-holders’ revolt and dispersed its army of hundreds of thousands. It could certainly have crushed what was left of these forces ten years later. Politically it was unwilling to do so. Camejo pointed to the reason why:
“The economic as well as political consequences of a consistent defense of democratic rights of Black labor in the South was not lost on the newly installed Northern rulers. They were not disposed to encourage any such radical agrarian upheaval as a land reform, which would in principle have challenged not only the property rights of the remaining defeated Southern planters but the private property basis of the whole bourgeois system.” From Camejo’s “Racism, Revolution, and Reaction, 1861-1877”
Racism and capitalism go hand in hand
The northern rulers whose power was consolidated by the Union victory in the Civil War were ultimately committed to the expansion of the capitalist system and the super profits it offered to the capitalist class. While slavery was an obstacle to that system, racism was certainly not. Maintaining racist oppression helped keep working people divided. That was sufficient reason to make certain Radical Reconstruction went down to defeat.
Camejo concluded his analysis with this:
“The responsibility for this defeat and continued racial oppression rest with the industrial and financial capitalists who still dominate the United States. That is the foremost lesson of the defeat of Radical Reconstruction.” From Camejo’s “Racism, Revolution, and Reaction, 1861-1877”
This is not a clear conclusion drawn by critical race theory. Many of its proponents do not recognize, as Malcolm X did, that to this day racism and capitalism go hand in hand. This is in part because at least some of those proponents, while sincerely and deeply opposed to racism, have found a relatively comfortable niche in academia or elsewhere in capitalist society. Thus, they see the endurance of racism in individual attitudes among millions, rather than in the capitalist system that reinforces those attitudes.
The next and final part of this series will take up why notions of “embracing white guilt” or “renouncing white privilege,” which flow from that outlook, do not aid the fight against racism.
 The abbreviated reference to the need to “rid American society of its pre-capitalist encumbrances (Indian tribalism, feudalism and slavery)” may convey the idea that the annihilation of Native American societies was as desirable as the destruction of feudalism and slavery. That is in no way Novack’s point.
We encourage readers to study the pamphlet Genocide Against the Indians, published by Pathfinder Press. The booklet collects three articles written by Novack in 1949. The individual articles are also available at https://www.marxists.org/archive/novack/index.htm. An excerpt from the first article offers a clearer view of Novack’s fundamental political point:
“Above all, the North American Indians knew no such thing as private property in land which is the basis of all other kinds of private ownership in the means of production. When the white man arrived, there was not one acre from the Atlantic to the Pacific that belonged to a private person, that could be alienated from the community or assigned to anyone outside the tribe. The very idea that ancestral lands from which they drew their sustenance could be taken from the people, become an article of commerce, and be bought and sold was inconceivable, fantastic and abhorrent to the Indian. Even when Indians were given money or goods for a title to their lands, they could not believe that this transaction involved the right to deprive them of their use forever.
“ ‘The earth is like fire and water, that cannot be sold,’ said the Omaha's. The Shawnee chief Tecumseh, who sought to combine all the Indians from Canada to Florida against the encroachment of the whites upon their hunting grounds, exclaimed: ‘Sell land! As well sell air and water. The Great Spirit gave them in common to all.’
“But the ‘Great Spirit’ animating and dominating the whites, had an entirely different revelation. The intruders looked upon the new-found lands and their occupants through the eyes of a civilization founded on opposite premises. To them it was natural to convert everything into private property and thereby exclude the rest of humanity from its use and enjoyment. The conquerors maintained that whatever existed in the New World, or came out of it, was to be vested either in an individual or a power separate and distinct from the community or towering above it, like the monarchy, the state or the church.
“They did not exempt human beings from this process. The invaders seized not only the land but its inhabitants and sought, wherever they could, to convert the Indians into their private possessions as chattel-slaves.
“Those who were driven across the Atlantic by religious and political persecution were a minority. For the majority, the lust for aggrandizement and the greed for personal gain were among the prime passions actuating the Europeans. It was these material motives, more powerful than wind or wave, that propelled the first Europeans overseas and then inevitably brought them into collision with the aboriginal inhabitants.
“The conquerors came as robbers and enslavers; they stayed as colonizers and traders. America had belonged to the Indian tribes both by hereditary right and by life-and-death need to maintain themselves and perpetuate their kind upon the tribal territories. But the tribes wanted to hold the land for different purposes and on different terms than the whites. The Europeans aimed to acquire the land for themselves or for some sovereign or noble who held title for their country. The newcomers needed land, not simply for hunting, trapping and fishing, but for extensive agriculture, for lumbering, for settlements and trading centers, for commerce and manufacture—in a phrase, for private exploitation on an expanding scale.
“Thus, regardless of their wishes, the Indians and Europeans were sharply counterposed to each other by virtue of their contradictory economic needs and aims.”