Democracy and the White Working Class vs. “Oligarchy” in the South: Insights from Varon’s New History of the Civil War

Kevin B. Anderson

Summary: Two strands of Elizabeth Varon’s book, that of a real democracy vs. a white southern oligarchy and that of a racist, nativist politics of grievance in the face of the Confederacy’s defeat, lead to some inspiring but also sober reflections on America’s past — Editors

Elizabeth Varon’s book, Armies of Deliverance: A New History of the Civil War, has just come to my attention, although it was published four years ago, in 2019. Whether intentionally or not, the book gives important illumination to Marxist debates over race, class, and slavery. And a briefer level, it also offers new insights the origins of fascist and right-wing populist movements in the U.S.

The Marxist discussion of class and race in the U.S. South goes back to Marx himself, who always distinguished between the small oligarchy of the white plantocracy and the vast majority of southern whites, especially the “poor whites.” As he wrote to Engels soon after the South seceded: “North Carolina and even Arkansas elected Union delegates, the former even by a large majority. Subsequently terrorized.… Texas, where, after South Carolina, there is the largest Slave Party and terrorism, nevertheless 11,000 votes for Union” (Letter of July 5, 1861). At the same time, Marx repeatedly referred to how racism had attenuated the growth of class consciousness among poor southern whites, often choking off revolutionary possibilities.

Over the years, the best representatives of Marxist and socialist thought have seen poor and working-class southern whites as potential allies of the Black working people of the South, while also noting that racism often drove these whites in the opposite direction, derailing farmer, labor and socialist movements in the region. Such thinkers have pointed to early Reconstruction, the Populist movement of the 1890s, the sharecroppers’ movements of the 1930s, and other more recent junctures when class solidarity emerged in the South in the face of racism and racial division.

What Varon reveals in her careful study of the press and public opinion during the Civil War is that an analogue of this kind of thinking was already present in Abolitionist and even centrist northern thought during the Civil War. Though posed in liberal democratic rather than in class terms, the war was conceptualized as a battle inside the South between, on the one hand, democracy and working people in the broadest sense, and, on the other hand, a small oligarchy that ruled through pure force and brutality over an enslaved Black population, and through fear and manipulation over the vast majority of the white southern population as well. As the flagship Abolitionist publication, William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator, intoned in 1861, the southern Secession was a “rebellion to extend despotism – despotism over white men’s minds as well as over black men’s bodies” (cited on p. 5). During these same weeks, the more establishment New York Herald explained to its readers that white southerners were “ripe for their deliverance from the most revolting despotism on the face of the earth” (cited on p. 4).

Or as General William T. Sherman, who was soon to cede parcels of land in the Sea Islands of Georgia to Black troops, wrote in early 1864: “For my part, I believe that this war is the result of false political doctrine… Slave owners… conceived their property in danger, and foolishly appealed to war; and by skillful political handling, involved with themselves the whole South on this result of error and prejudice. I believe that some of the rich and slave-holding are prejudiced to an extent that nothing but death and ruin will extinguish, but hope that as the poorer and industrial classes of the South realize their relative weakness, and their dependence upon the fruits of the earth and good will of their fellow-men, they will not only discover the error of their ways, and repent of their hasty action, but bless those who persistently maintained a constitutional Government, strong enough to sustain itself, protect its citizens, and promise peaceful homes to millions yet unborn” (cited on p. 358).

While many disappointments lay in store by for those who thought along these lines about southern whites, the main thrust of their argument should not be dismissed out of hand. At their best, these kinds of arguments point to real possibilities of revolutionary change that resulted from the cataclysm of the Civil War, the closest thing to a social revolution that the U.S. has ever seen.

What I drew from Varon’s careful research in Deliverance was not any sense of U.S. racism as an obdurate deep structure incapable of change, or that therefore these northern anti-slavery positions should be viewed as hopelessly naïve. Instead, I came away with a sense that those who take the issues of race, class, and democracy seriously – and who wish to extirpate U.S. racial authoritarianism — have been at this for a much longer time and on a larger scale than is usually realized. Moreover, these are efforts we can still learn from today. In addition, knowing about such efforts to think through race and class in a clear manner gives one renewed strength for the long haul, as one can see oneself as part of a thread going back over 150 years.

Varon’s book also offers a second kind of illumination for today. The evidence she presents shows that the ideology that guided the January 6, 2021 coup attempt and, in fact, the whole Trumpist “great replacement” theory, can also be traced back to those revolutionary years of the Civil War and Reconstruction. By 1865, as the Southern rulers came to realize that defeat was certain, they sought an alibi. As their representatives now argued, defeat was not the result of democratic forces vs. despotism, as progressive northern opinion held. Instead, these propagandists of hate crafted an alibi with a mixture of racism and nativism that could easily read like a Trumpist speech in the present era. In fact, this legacy, preserved through generations of reactionary groups like the KKK in the South and beyond, is one of the sources of Trumpism and of American fascism more generally. One striking example is found in the utterances of defeated Confederate General William Pendleton on how the Union army was composed of “German, Irish, negro, and Yankee wretches” (p. 412). Varon adds that these southern propagandists’ emphasis on the strength of northern capital was also part of the argument that they had been “compelled to surrender to a mercenary army of their social and racial inferiors” (p. 412). Thus, since the North won because it used its greater wealth to enlist not only Blacks, but also a European immigrant element perceived as foreign, whom it welcomed to U.S. shores to dilute the nation’s ethnic composition. Therefore, while the Confederacy lost the war, it would have won had the fight been confined to those its ideologues perceived as “real” Americans. In this way, even in defeat, southern propagandists laid down an ominous marker for the future.

Taken together, these two strands of Varon’s book, that of a real democracy vs. a white southern oligarchy and that of a racist, nativist politics of grievance in the face of the Confederacy’s defeat, lead to some inspiring but also sober reflections on America’s past. It has been a long road, and true liberation has been a long time coming in this country, with the situation still one of “not yet freedom,” as the African liberationists of the 1960s liked to say. The U.S. freedom road is long and winding, and people dedicated to the struggle have been traveling it for many decades now. Varon’s Deliverance helps us to know that road from its beginnings, the better to navigate what lies ahead.



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1 Comment

  1. Greg Williams

    How close we came in 1867 to a very different trajectory for the United States. That year, the U.S. Senate, led by Ohio U.S. Senator Benjamin Wade, one of the most radical politicians in the nation, came within one vote of removing President Andrew Johnson and thus making Wade, as president pro tempore of the Senate, the president.
    Wade advocated taking over and distributing to former slaves (and poor whites) the plantation lands of former slave-overs (“40 acres and a mule”). He supported votes for women, trade union rights and equal civil rights for African Americans. He was highly critical of capitalism and argued that an economic system “which degrades the poor man and elevates the rich, which makes the rich richer and the poor poorer, which drags the very soul out of a poor man for a pitiful existence is wrong.”
    Karl Marx wrote, in his first introduction to “Das Kapital” in 1867, “Mr. Wade, the (acting) vice-president of the United State declared that, after the abolition of slavery, a radical change of the of the relations of capital and of property in land is the next order of the day.”
    The impeachment of Johnson failed by one vote, because several “moderate” (Wall Street-oriented) Republican Senators joined all of the Democrats in blocking the impeachment out of fear of the truly radical Wade becoming president. Imagine what a different country this could have become.