Lesson of Harper’s Ferry Raid

Working-Class Violence: A Key to Revolution

In mobilizing the October 17 Harper’s Ferry march to commemorate the 150th anniversary of John Brown’s raid and to finish the job, two keys to revolutionary change stand out: revolutionary violence and multi-racial unity.

Revolutionary Violence

The government of a capitalist society enforces the exploitative and racist oppression of the working class by any means necessary, including violence by the cops at home and the military abroad. The capitalist state asserts a monopoly on the right to use violence, and uses it whenever workers and rebels threaten the bosses’ rule — on picket lines, in community rebellions against racism or in insurrections threatening bosses’ investments worldwide. The working class has no choice but to meet this capitalist violence with organized mass violence of its own. Failure to do so guarantees defeat.

Consider the Garrisonian abolitionists in the 1830s and ‘40s. They felt that with “moral suasion” slave-owners would eventually surrender their slaves. But “morality” will never trump the economic advantage of exploitation by elite classes, be they slaveholders or capitalists. The battle in Kansas (see CHALLENGE, 9/30) and the raid on Harper’s Ferry brought home that truth, and the ensuing Civil War demonstrated most certainly that only great violence could end the exploitation of chattel slavery.

Slavery was violence. The capture in Africa, the leg irons and imprisonment of the Middle Passage across the Atlantic on slave ships, the whip of the overseers to enforce interminable backbreaking work, and the master’s branding iron, jail cell and noose maintained slavery. The federal government guaranteed the legitimacy of this daily violence in Article IV of the U.S. Constitution and supporting laws, and used its armed might against both Nat Turner’s 1831 rebellion and the 1859 Harper’s Ferry Raid.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 restated the Constitution’s provision making it illegal to aid escaped slaves but now required citizens of Northern states to actively assist their recapture whenever asked by private slave-catchers and/or federal marshals. Refusing to help could mean six months in prison or a $1,000 fine, even if the person seized had never been a slave at all! No trial by jury was allowed in such cases, since Northern juries would not generally convict someone who opposed slavery. No supposedly escaped slave could ever testify.

The 1857 Dred Scott Decision deepened this tyranny. The Supreme Court ruled that no black person, slave or free, was a U.S. citizen and had no right to bring a case to court. This essentially legalized slavery nation-wide and officially endorsed racist doctrine.

Racist Laws Still Exist

Similar practices continue today! The U. S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) staffs checkpoints on roads leading north from Mexico (sometimes hundreds of miles above the border), randomly stopping and searching vehicles, particularly those containing people who “look Latino.” Those who cannot prove their citizenship or produce documents showing they’re legally in the country are jailed and deported. ICE has employed similar tactics in raids on factories, movie theaters and wherever Latino workers are concentrated.

Similarly, the police beat and kill African American and Latino workers with impunity across the country.  No jury trial for them, just cops acting as judge, jury and executioner!  Killer cops are rarely indicted and virtually never convicted. Such state terrorism is designed to keep workers docile, divided and intimidated, echoing chattel slavery.

And so our class faces a violent, mighty foe. We must not shrink from what must be done today, organizing in factories, in the military and on campuses, not merely to resist but to turn the guns around on the world’s most violent ruling class. But such violence must be based in the masses.

Consider John Brown’s trip east after the January 1859 battle in Kansas. During this journey, his band of 15 helped 11 slaves escape and confronted and defeated 60 government soldiers trying to capture them. He fought and moved about with confidence since thousands of anti-slavery activists backed him wherever he went. In fact, when the Kansas governor demanded, via telegraph, that the U.S. Marshal at Springdale “capture John Brown, dead or alive,” the marshal responded with great irony, “If I try to capture John Brown, it’ll be dead, and I’ll be the one…dead!”

Similarly, Brown boldly declared that since President Buchanan had offered $250 for his capture, Brown would give $2.50 for the safe delivery of James Buchanan’s body.

A massive, militant anti-slavery movement existed, powerful enough to markedly limit federal government action. It had grown from the thousands who escaped from slavery and from their supporters. John Brown did not march on Harper’s Ferry to create a movement, but to put that movement on the offensive, just as he’d done in Kansas.

The Progressive Labor Party has mobilized against hundreds of demonstrations and attacks by the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis and Minutemen. Only the presence of hundreds of cops prevented the fascists from being torn apart by anti-racist fighters led by PLP. Similarly, it was only the power of the federal government to enforce laws that protected the slave-owners from being crushed by enslaved workers and their allies.

As the communist movement grows once again, we must prepare to defeat ruling-class violence with mass, working-class violence that sweeps away all capitalist institutions and bosses. Nothing short of this will enable us to rebuild a society based on equality, collectivity and sensible management of the planet’s resources for the needs of the working class, now and in the future. J

(Next issue: The Importance of
Multi-Racial Unity

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One thought on “Lesson of Harper’s Ferry Raid

  1. captkirk999 says:

    I am wondering what you think of Democratic Socialism, Bernie Sanders Style. I think it would be better than Captialism and Communism


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