Harper’s Ferry Raid Shows: Rely on the Masses to Change the World

On October 17, 2009, PLP’ers are joining many others at Harper’s Ferry to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Harper’s Ferry raid which sparked the Civil War that ended chattel slavery in the U.S.  Join us!

Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner, Osborne Anderson, John Brown, Harriet Tubman — these bold leaders of the anti-slavery struggle understood that the millions of enslaved Africans and millions more of the workers and small farmers oppressed by the slave oligarchy would, under the right conditions, rise up against slavery. They acted on this confidence in the masses and shook the world, from Charleston, S.C. and Southampton, Virginia, to bleeding Kansas and Harper’s Ferry. We should emulate this boldness in our struggles today, for the oppressed of the world will also, under the right conditions and communist leadership, rise up to destroy their exploiters.

Racist ideology intensified in the run-up to the Civil War as the rulers tried to ideologically undermine the anti-slavery cause. Blacks were portrayed by Southern slaveowners as an “inferior breed,” “happy” with slavery, and unfit because of their “inferiority” for a life of freedom alongside whites. Racists in the North repeated the picture of blacks as servile, shuffling, meek, cowardly and dancing in blissful ignorance.

These lies continue today in various forms and are applied to every ethnic group of workers to keep people divided and
demoralized. Left out of today’s picture is the
eleven-month Stella O’Doro strike in NY, the sit-down strike at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago, the massive outpouring of opposition to the racist attacks on the Jena 6, black students who fought back against oppression in Louisiana, and hundreds more actions, large and small, around the world.

Anti-slavery rebels knew, contrary to the racist images, that enslaved and free blacks and anti-slavery whites planned and carried out ingenious and daring escapes from slavery with courage and fortitude in the face of whippings, jailing and death. Thousands of slaves escaped to the Dismal Swamp in Virginia, to the Florida swamps, and to the mountains of Jamaica to form egalitarian maroon societies in defiance of the slave system, defending their communities by any means necessary. Slaveowners and their racist apologists claimed that these fighters were the “lunatic fringe,” but John Brown and other anti-slavery activists knew better.

The slave rebellion led by Nat Turner in Virginia in 1831 terrified slaveowners because it demonstrated that every enslaved person was a potential “assassin” of his “beloved” master.  Brown and other activists eagerly studied the formation of armies of thousands of the enslaved on the island of Santo Domingo and their success in annihilating their French masters in establishing a black Republic of Haiti in the 1790s.

These experiences led to two profound, if simple, conclusions: people fight back against oppression and their struggle causes change. These conclusions are often poorly understood.  Today, many workers say, “Nobody where I work wants to do anything” or “You can’t fight City Hall.” or “You can’t win.” Or “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” But PLP knows better, and acts on the historical knowledge contained in those two simple conclusions.

While the anti-slavery movement grew apace, the European revolutionaries Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were sharpening the working-class fight against wage slavery. Based on their participation in the revolutionary movement and their study of history they developed the philosophy of dialectical materialism. This philosophy, outlined in the Communist Manifesto of 1848, proven true over the years, explains that class struggle is the motive force of history. Periods of seeming passivity among the oppressed, however prolonged, are replaced by blazing struggle, like the explosion of a seemingly dormant volcano. Systems of class exploitation, although they seem at times, permanent, and even “natural,” end. We are no longer cultivating crops and building pyramids in the Nile Valley. Slavery is ended. Feudalism has ended. Capitalism will also end.

Most people do not yet realize this, just as most people in 1859 did not yet realize that slavery was on the verge of extinction. The enslavement of Africans and the system built on this edifice had existed for over 200 years and appeared permanent, like capitalism today. But, with the growth of the PLP and a communist revolution in the face of imperialist war and the continuing crises of capitalism, communism will replace capitalism and all forms of class society.

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