On Saturday, October 17, PLP is joining with thousands commemorating the 150th anniversary of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry to celebrate this watershed event in the history of the modern working class. Its lessons — the need for militancy, boldness, multi-racial unity and fearlessness in confronting a powerful but ultimately weak ruling class — are just as important today as we face increasing global imperialist war and racist exploitation.
John Brown led a multi-racial group of five black men, including two ex-slaves, and 16 white men in seizing the Federal Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) on October 16, 1859. They planned to take the thousands of muskets stored there into the Appalachian Mountains and begin raids on slave plantations. They would train freed slaves who wished to join the guerrilla army and help make further raids. This process, plus slave rebellions it would encourage, would continue until slavery was smashed.
John Brown’s band made tactical errors and was trapped in the arsenal. After a two-day gun battle, the survivors were captured by U.S. Marines led by Col. Robert E. Lee, who shortly thereafter became the Confederacy’s military leader.
Harriet Tubman — escaped slave and famous as “General” Tubman of the Underground Railroad, organizer of over a dozen trips to the South to aid other slaves in escaping — had helped prepare for the raid. She planned to participate with a contingent of allies, but illness delayed her departure for Virginia. Meanwhile, fearing discovery, John Brown had started the raid two weeks earlier than planned.
Brown and other captured survivors were tried for murder, treason against the state of Virginia and inciting slave rebellions. They were convicted and hanged. Virginia’s slave-owners were so afraid of abolitionist attempts to rescue Brown that they guarded the execution with 1,500 state militiamen, federal troops and Virginia Military Institute cadets.
While jailed awaiting death, Brown predicted that his hanging would do more to free the slaves than his original plan. In a note he handed to a guard on the day of his execution, Brown wrote that his only error had been to underestimate the amount of violence necessary to destroy slavery.
Great Violence Needed to End Slavery
Many bourgeois historians claim John Brown’s intense hatred of racism and his actions against slavery “prove” he was insane, particularly since he was white and not enslaved. Yet most historians agree with Brown’s own evaluation of the need for great violence to end slavery. They also concede that the raid on Harper’s Ferry and the following trial and execution swung the abolitionist movement onto the path of destroying slavery by force rather than with “moral persuasion” and piecemeal reforms and escapes. The raid also encouraged a new wave of slave rebelliousness.
Long before 1859, Brown had been advocating violence to destroy slavery. In a struggle in the Kansas territory between advocates of slavery and “free labor,” Brown and his sons led numerous armed struggles against pro-slavery terrorists. On May 24, Brown and his followers made a night raid on the homes of some particularly vicious ones, capturing and killing five with broadswords.
Kansas ultimately entered the Union as a free state due in no small measure to the boldness of anti-slavery militias like that of Brown’s. Among abolitionists and wider circles of northern working people, John Brown became a symbol of hatred of racism and slavery in defiance of the slave-owners.
Less than two years after John Brown’s raid, the Civil War erupted. By 1865, about 1,300,000 Union troops marched through the South to the tune of “John Brown’s Body.” About 200,000 of these troops were black men, many of them escaped slaves or slaves freed by the advancing Union army. These black and many white troops opposed slavery and racism. They were an armed expression of multi-racial unity.
History was made by millions of ordinary people fighting back. Hundreds of supporters directly aided the preparation for the raid; thousands more did so indirectly. When saying “John Brown” or “Harriet Tubman,” we’re not extolling some “superhero” contrived by capitalist press agents to reduce us to a passive audience applauding their splendid speeches or exploits. Revolutionary leaders (whose words, actions and thoughts best summarize those of countless others) encourage our strengths, so that we can consciously participate in understanding and changing the world.
The Inspiration of John Brown
John Brown is with us every time we help one co-worker shake off the mental and physical chains of capitalist enslavement by daring to join with others to fight the enemy. We celebrate this 150th anniversary to help lead our class closer to revolution by learning from John Brown and from the millions to whom he gave leadership.
Brown was a Christian, not a Marxist, and did not attack the capitalist system along with slavery. We now realize that racism cannot finally be destroyed without destroying capitalism. In fact, capitalism grew on the basis of continued racist oppression after the Civil War and continues to be the foundation of modern capitalism worldwide. But we study John Brown to learn from his strengths: multi-racial unity, boldness in seizing the offensive, reliance on the masses to embrace violence to destroy a ruling class.
We in PLP are preparing for another civil war, this time a class war to destroy wage slavery and with it, all oppression. History — the story of working-class struggle — produces the material from which our ideas on how to make a revolution emerge. Join us on October 17, 2009! We must finish the job begun by our anti-slavery ancestors!