Is Democracy Compatible with Capitalism?
Reconstruction in the US, 1863-1877

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the other bureaucratic monstrosities that masqueraded as socialism nearly thirty years ago, the dominant “common sense” across the world is that only capitalism can sustain democracy. From the conservative right to the social-democratic left, there is a consensus that private property and competitive markets are the only foundation for legal equality, universal suffrage, and representative government. Any and all attempts to go beyond capitalism will inevitably produce political despotism, dictatorship, and repression.

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Illustration by Megan Piontkowski.

The anti-capitalist left has long rejected such claims. For most of the twentieth century, capitalism coexisted with open dictatorships in Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain and much of the global South. In societies that had elected governments, suffrage was restricted to property owners before World War I. Even with the establishment of the right to vote for all adults after 1945, the ability of capitalists to dominate and manipulate ostensibly democratic governments has been well documented.

The late Ellen Meiksins Wood grappled with the paradoxical relationship between capitalism and democracy. 1 In its original form in ancient Athens, 2 “democracy” meant substantive popular power—‘rule by the demos.’ Peasant-citizens used their political power to limit their economic exploitation through taxation and rent. Capitalists transformed the meaning of “democracy.” Because exploitation takes place through the exchange of labor-power for wages, capitalism makes possible citizenship and suffrage for the direct producers. However, capitalism requires that working class citizenship and voting rights do not “significantly modify class inequality.” 3 Initially, capitalist republics disenfranchised the property-less. However, the rise of popular and labor movements made the exclusion of the working class from suffrage impossible.

To reconcile capitalism and democratic forms, the scope and meaning of democracy was radically transformed. The US republic pioneered the limitation of popular power in a “democratic” state. Unable to exclude the politically active mass of farmers and artisans from the suffrage after the Revolution, the framers of the US Constitution invented the notion of representative democracy, where popular power was alienated to the “men of property and intelligence” who would represent the people in the new US state. As suffrage spread, the concept of democracy was transformed again, into liberal democracy, where the protection of individual rights through the rule of law substituted for the active exercise of political power by “the people.”

The era of Reconstruction after the Civil War marked the birth of liberal democracy in the US. The tumultuous class conflicts of this era—between capitalist manufacturers and workers in the North, and landowning planters and their ex-slaves in the south—reshaped the meaning of democracy. In these struggles, every advance of the substantive democratic power of workers or former slaves challenged capitalist dominance. The stabilization of capitalism required the radical restriction of democracy in the form of liberalism in the north, and legal racial segregation, disenfranchisement and racial terror in the south.

At the beginning of the Civil War, the Radical Republicans—a small minority of the party based among successful commercial farmers and small town professionals 4— alone advocated a revolutionary war that would abolish chattel slavery in the south. The dominant moderate Republicans, with their close ties to the northern manufacturers,5 sought to pursue a “limited war” in 1861 and early 1862. A combination of military setbacks in late 1861 and early 1862, and the self-activity of the slaves themselves, forced the moderate Republicans to shift their strategy to “total war,” including undermining the southern plantation economy through abolition.6 During the period of “limited war,” thousands of slaves took advantage of the presence of Federal troops to flee their masters’ plantations and join the invading armies. The Lincoln administration initially ordered Federal commanders to return runaway slaves to their masters. However, the numbers of slaves fleeing the plantations and seeking refuge with Union troops led to the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared all slaves in Confederate controlled territories free as of January 1, 1863. The Proclamation and Union victories unleashed a massive flight of slaves from the plantations, a veritable “general strike” that involved 500,000 slaves and paralyzed the southern economy.

The war ended with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which made legal-juridical freedom the national legal framework for labor.  The destruction of slavery through the self-activity and self-organization of the slaves also radicalized northern public opinion. Before the war, most northern Whites, including most radical opponents of slavery and its expansion, viewed African-Americans as weak, cowardly and incapable of asserting their independent “manhood” under slavery.  African-Americans’ military service forced northern Whites to view Black men (all women were still viewed as inferior) as their political and social equals.

At the center of this radicalization were the Radical Republicans—the most consistent defenders of the northern “free labor” system. In the north, the Radicals sought to preserve a social order based in small-scale manufacturing, employing skilled labor and market-driven household-based agricultural production. The majority of Radicals believed that a protective tariff and inflationary paper currency would allow US manufacturing to pay high wages, avoid the mechanization that reduced skilled workers to “mere operatives,” and allow “thrifty and sober workmen” to achieve self-employment.7 In the south, the Radicals supported measures that guaranteed the mass of African-American freedmen “full self-ownership,” in particular federally protected citizenship and voting rights. Only a minority considered the possibility of confiscating the lands of the former planters and distributing them to the freed people. However, all were convinced that a southern labor-market, free of legal and juridical coercion, would allow former slaves to earn wages that would allow them to become independent farmers or artisans.8

The instrument of this radical transformation of social relations was the centralized and democratized national state. For the Radicals, popular power was unrestrained except for the wishes of the majority. Native-born Protestant skilled workers, urban professionals, and the prosperous family farmers of the upper Midwest all gravitated to the Radicals’ vision of a “free labor” society that provided all men with full “self-ownership” and the opportunity for all men to rise into the ranks of petty proprietors. Capitalist manufacturers were also drawn to Radicalism. Even more important than the Radicals’ defense of inflationary paper money and the protective tariff, was the vision of a world in which universal freedom, protected by universal male citizenship and suffrage, would allow all to rise into the ranks of the self-employed through hard work and thrift.9 Such a world view was a viable “mental road map of the lived experience”10 of a class of small capitalists only one generation removed from the ranks of self-employed craftsmen.11

Class conflict in the north was “the submerged shoal on which” the Radicals’ vision of a harmonious society of small producers and upwardly mobile skilled workers “foundered.”12 Despite their hopes that tariffs and inflationary paper money would promote social mobility and short-circuit the development of a permanent class of wage-earners, post-war growth deepened class divisions in the north. While the average manufacturing firm employed only 8.15 workers in 1869, nearly two thirds of the total working population in 1870 were wage workers—27.4% manufacturing workers.13 While divided along lines of skill, ethnicity, race, and politics, large segments of the working class sought to use the democratic state to promote their own vision of Reconstruction.

Almost immediately upon the end of the war, workers in the north launched new struggles to realize their version of “freedom” and “full self-ownership.” Skilled workers set about reorganizing their craft-based trade unions; while unskilled workers (mining, textiles, long-shore) fought against wage cuts and speed-up through strikes and mass community-based mobilizations. While most unskilled workers were unable to create lasting unions, skilled workers had established twenty-one national craft unions and dozens of municipal labor councils by 1870.14 The organization of unions and frequent strikes raised serious challenges to the Radical manufacturers’ belief “that working for wages was merely a temporary resting place on the road to economic autonomy.”15 Even more threatening was the growing agitation for “eight-hour legislation” in the late 1860s and early 1870s. Workers attempted to win the eight-hour day through direct industrial action, and political agitation for state legislation to limit the working day to eight hours.16

The manufacturers were unanimous in their opposition to the eight hour day—whether achieved through strike action or, worse, legislation. However, individual Radical Republicans supported eight hour laws that lacked any enforcement mechanisms in Congress and northern state legislatures. The workers’ appropriation of Radical ideology to argue for the legal limitation of the working day presented an even more profound challenge for the manufacturers. According to labor radicals like Boston’s Ira Steward, popular, democratic government was obligated to protect and promote the interests of the laboring majority. The legal limitation of the working day would free workers from “wage slavery” and give them true “self-ownership.”17

By the late 1860s, the manufacturers found the Radicals’ vision of a democratic state promoting a harmonious society of petty proprietorship and social mobility an inadequate “mental road map” of the lived experience of sharpening class warfare. Radicalism ceased to be the dominant trend in the Republican Party after the nomination of Grant in 1868, as the Radicals lost support among the manufacturers and their program for the south—nationally guaranteed citizenship and voting rights for the freedmen—was realized with the election of Republican state governments across the former Confederacy.18  The “Stalwarts” came to dominate the Republican Party after 1868. While committed to defending the civil and political rights of African-Americans in the South and preserving protective tariffs and inflationary paper money, the Stalwarts were political pragmatists whose main goals were winning and maintaining public office. The manufacturing capitalists found the Stalwarts’ rule, at best, a temporary political home. The Stalwarts were willing to use Federal and state funds to subsidize railroad construction, charter private corporations, and otherwise promote capitalist development. However, while the Stalwarts “served business” they “also preyed upon it.”19 The rampant corruption of the Grant years, combined with the Stalwarts’ willingness to court the vote of workers with promises of pro-labor legislation, led the manufacturers to gravitate toward different political ideas in the 1870s.

The depression of 1873 and the subsequent sharpening of class struggle in the north pushed the industrial capitalist to embrace a new world view—liberalism. While the sharp economic contraction destroyed skilled workers’ organizations, it stimulated movements of the urban unemployed across the north. Urban political machines, Democratic and Republican, found themselves caught between workers demanding public works and relief, and northern industrial and banking capitalists’ insisting on cutting public expenditures and taxes. The cyclical recovery of 1875-77 produced a new wave of strikes against wage cuts and the intensification of work, particularly among railway workers. Faced with renewed employer demands for wage reductions, rail workers launched national strikes in 1877, which took near insurrectionary form in major towns and cities across the US. Only the use of Federal troops crushed the rebellion of 1877.20

Liberal Republicanism emerged in response to growing working class militancy in the early 1870s. The Liberals rejected the Radical equation of democracy with the substantive and unrestrained power of the majority. In both the north and south, the Liberals called for “limited government”—a deflationary monetary policy, reductions in tariffs, lower taxes and public expenditures, and an end to all the dangerous “social experiments” of the Reconstruction era. The Liberals embraced the division of society between capital and labor as “natural,” sought to remove the “corrupting influence” of the lower classes on government, and restored the proper independence of the market as the regulator of economic and social life. Their elitism and commitment to the rule of “men of property and intelligence” justified the restructuring of state institutions in the north so they could more adequately defend capitalism against the “democratic mob.” While their call for property and education qualifications on suffrage was never realized, Liberals won the reduction in the number and powers of elected officials. Put simply, the Liberals redefined “democracy” to mean “the passive enjoyment of constitutional and procedural safeguards and rights.” 21

The incompatibility of substantive democracy and the development of capitalist social property relations was nowhere more evident than in the postbellum US south. In the aftermath of the collapse of slavery in 1863, the Lincoln administration pursued contradictory policies regarding the future of agricultural class relations in the south. On the one hand, some army and Freedmen’s Bureau officials carried out local experiments distributing abandoned or confiscated lands to freed people in 40 acre lots.22 On the other hand, most Federal officials sought to restore land to its former owners and reestablish plantation agriculture on the basis of the freely contracted wage labor. The majority of northern capitalists correctly feared that any distribution of land to the ex-slaves would lead to the development of a subsistence peasantry as it had in the post-emancipation Caribbean. By the end of the war in April 1865, the Federal officials committed themselves to restoration of the plantations on the basis of legally free wage labor.23

While the planters were quite happy that the Federal government had restored their property and supported the transformation of the ex-slaves into wage laborers, they had no intention of relying on the unfettered operation of the labor market to establish capitalist plantation agriculture in the south. Not only did they impose yearlong contracts with payment of wages in the form of a share of the crop only after the harvest, guaranteeing the stability of their labor force through the crop-cycle, but they sought to restore physical punishment as a means of ensuring that the work gangs labored from “sunrise to sunset.” The planters also attempted to restrict, through paramilitary violence (the Klan, etc.), the geographic movement of their new employees in order to prevent them from seeking other employment, and sought to force all members of the freed people’s households, including women and children, to labor in centralized gangs under their direction.24

In late 1865, the planters “turned to the state to reestablish labor discipline.”25 Under Andrew Johnson’s presidency, southern state governments were reorganized by state constitutional conventions elected by Whites alone. These conventions accepted the abolition of slavery, but extended neither citizenship nor the suffrage to the freedmen. The new legislatures promulgated the “Black Codes” in early 1866, which included anti-vagrancy laws, that threatened unemployed African-Americans with fines and imprisonment; “anti-enticement” laws that limited competition for labor by forbidding employers to offer employment to freed people already under contract to another planter; and laws that forbade African-Americans from buying or leasing land, carrying arms, or testifying in court and serving on juries.26

The planters justified their reliance on extra-economic coercion with the racist claim that people of African descent would only labor effectively under compulsion. However, capitalist agriculture, with its “slack seasons” between planting and harvesting, has often relied on legally coerced wage labor to secure labor year-round.27 In the US south in 1865, the planters also faced the organized resistance of the freed people to wage labor. The wartime experiences of mass flight from the plantations and Union military service raised the political and social confidence of the freed people. The south saw a veritable explosion of self-organization among the freedmen in the summer and fall of 1865. Former slaves pooled resources and built their own churches and schools, and organized hundreds of cultural and political organizations. The most important were the Union Leagues. Under the leadership of Union veterans and skilled artisans, the Leagues acted as both unions and political organizations demanding equal citizenship and suffrage.28

War time experiments had raised the former slaves’ expectations of a radical land reform in 1865-66. As early as 1861-62, Federal troops assented to the freed peoples’ seizure of abandoned plantations and the distribution of land to their households on the South Carolina Sea Islands, where they “commenced planting corn and potatoes for their own subsistence, but evinced considerable resistance to growing the ‘slave crop,’ cotton.”29 The Freedmen’s Bureau’s “Circular no. 13” of July 1865 ordered lands abandoned by planters to be sold or leased to the freed people. While the Johnson administration reversed “Circular no. 13” and returned land to the former slaveholders, African-Americans across the south believed that a radical land reform was immanent in late 1865 and 1866.30

Refusing to return to conditions they associated with slavery and encouraged by rumors of a federal land reform, freedmen organized to undermine capitalist plantation agriculture immediately after the war. First, the freedmen withdrew female and juvenile labor from the plantations. The resulting 28-37% drop in number of hours rural African-Americans worked created a severe labor shortage, giving the former slaves considerable leverage. They routinely left employers during the harvest, despite fines and loss of wages, because they were able to gain significantly higher wages from other employers.31 The freedmen organized proto-trade unions to bargain over wages, hours, and working conditions, and engaged in short strikes during the time sensitive harvests to enforce their demands. These unions often evolved into the Union Leagues, which became the backbone of the southern Republican Party.

Northern Republicans, merchants, and manufacturers responded ambivalently to the development of legally coerced wage labor in the south. On the one hand, cotton merchants and manufacturers wanted a rapid restoration of plantation production. On the other hand, the Radicals and Conservatives rejected any and all legal-juridical coercion of the freedmen and were appalled at the rise of paramilitary violence in the south.32 The northern capitalists and the Federal government hoped that southern cotton production would resume rapidly on the basis of wage labor, but eschewed the legal-juridical coercion necessary to impose capitalist social property relations.

The persistent violence against the freed people and the passage of the Black Codes allowed the Radicals to overturn Johnson’s “Presidential Reconstruction.” Believing that black wage workers with full civil and political rights could take full advantage of the free labor market, the Radicals pressed for Congressional action to establish national citizenship and voting rights for African-Americans in the south. Despite their concerns about reviving cotton production, most Republican Conservatives followed the lead of the Radicals in 1866 and 1867. First, Congress passed, over Johnson’s veto, the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which defined all persons born in the US (with the exception of native Americans) citizens and established legal equality regardless of race. The Fourteenth Amendment, approved by Congress in June 1866, placed national citizenship “beyond the reach of Presidential vetoes and shifting political majorities,”33 and made representation of a state in Congress dependent upon the number of adult males enfranchised. Finally, the Reconstruction Act of 1867 placed the south under military occupation and made the reintegration of southern state governments into the Union dependent upon “the writing of new constitutions providing manhood suffrage, their approval by a majority of registered voters, and ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment.”34

A wave of new political agitation spread across the south, as freedmen in the cotton south and upcountry white farmers joined the Republican party in 1866-67. Over 700,000 newly enfranchised African Americans—the majority of voters in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina—went to the polls. The new state conventions were elected in the Fall of 1867, met in early 1868, and drafted constitutions that guaranteed universal male suffrage and citizenship. The Republicans swept to power across the most of the south in the Spring of 1868 on the votes of newly enfranchised freedmen and white yeoman farmers. The new southern governments repealed the Black Codes and began to radically reorganize social relations
in the south.35

Radical Reconstruction, however, had an unintended consequence. Rather than realizing the utopian vision of a capitalist plantation agriculture based on juridically free labor, Republican dominance in the south led to the break-up of the plantations and the emergence of a new, non-capitalist form of social labor, share-cropping tenancy. By the spring of 1866, planters were facing difficulties enforcing “anti-enticement” laws that sought to limit competition among planters for laborers. Increasingly, planters across the cotton belt competed with one another for labor, leading to rising wages. In the late 1860s, the planters began to abandon centralized gang labor on the basis of wage labor, leased land in forty to eighty acre lots to freedmen and their families. The planter-landlord provided land, tools, seed, fertilizer, and work animals to the freedmen, who organized their households’ labor and paid a share of the crop to the landlord at harvest time. Although planter-landlords insisted on cotton production, the freedmen enjoyed patriarchal command of their household members’ labor, often using corporal punishment to discipline women and children.36 In sum, sharecropping embodied a class compromise between the planters’ desire to continue the production of cotton as a cash crop, and the freedmen’s aspiration to produce their own
subsistence independently.

Although the majority of elected and unelected positions in the new southern governments went to white Republicans from the north, the reliance of the new regimes on the votes and political activity of the freedmen and upcountry whites gave these Reconstruction governments a radical, non-capitalist character. The southern peasant-citizens used their substantive political power, in ways reminiscent of the peasant-citizens of Ancient Athens, to defend their class positions against the landlords. Across the south, Republican governments built public schools, hospitals, orphanages, and asylums. While these public institutions were de facto segregated by race, legal racial segregation of public institutions, accommodations, and transport was illegal across the south before the 1890s. The new state governments also repealed discriminatory poll taxes and licenses, and established property taxes on landed property. “Homestead exemptions” and “stay laws” protected upcountry farmers from losing their land through excessive taxation, shifting the tax burden to planters. Lien laws gave first claim on the crop to farmers and laborers, protecting white yeoman farmers and black sharecroppers from the landlords and merchants.37

The most radical anti-capitalist measures were taken at the local level, where African-Americans dominated public office in the cotton belt. Drawn from the ranks of artisans, shopkeepers, small landholders, ministers and teachers, most black officeholders were justices of the peace who “generally ruled on minor criminal offenses as well as a majority of civil cases,” sheriffs who “enforced the law, selected trial jurors, and carried out foreclosures and the public sales of land,” and county commissioners who “established tax rates, controlled local appropriations, and administered poor relief.” Through these offices, freedmen were able to insure that African-American sharecroppers were not taxed, received their “fair share” of the crop and public spending, and did not suffer retribution or victimization in the hands of their landlords
or vigilantes.38

The rule of the peasant-citizens in the postbellum south was short-lived. As the northern manufacturers became increasingly conservative in response to sharpening class confrontations with the northern working class in the 1870s, they progressively abandoned the freedmen. The Liberals’ elitist hostility toward white wage workers in the north extended toward African-American sharecroppers and farmers in the south. During the second Grant administration, the Liberals effectively blocked Congressional renewal of the Enforcement Acts, which had allowed the federal military to repress the Klan in 1871, or pass a new Civil Rights Act. The new Republican leaders believed that the violence of the Klan and the White Leagues were justifiable “reactions of society’s legitimate leaders against usurpers of political power.”39

At the same time their northern capitalist allies abandoned them, the southern Republican alliance of black sharecroppers and white upcountry farmers was strained. The white Republicans who controlled the most important public offices in the south, like Republicans in the north, issued bonds and allocated funds to build railroads across the south in the late 1860s and early 1870s. As in the north, the result was widespread corruption of government officials, rising public debt and new taxes. Especially after the depression of 1873, Republican state governments in the south raised property taxes, often eliminating “homestead exemptions” and “stay laws” which had protected white, upcountry independent farmers. Faced with the threat of losing their landed property to pay back taxes, the white yeoman farmers were open to the planter landlords’ appeals for racial solidarity to reestablish “white supremacy” in the south.40

With Congress unwilling to send additional Federal troops to defend the civil and political rights of the freedmen after 1874, the planters and their allies unleashed a reign of terror in the south. The revived Klan, the White Leagues and other racist paramilitary organizations broke up Republican meetings, assassinated white and black Republican leaders, and intimidated African-American voters across the south. By the fall of 1877, Democratic “Redeemers” held power in all the southern state governments except South Carolina and Louisiana. The contested Presidential election of 1876, in which the Democrat Tilden received a majority of popular votes in the midst of massive violence and electoral fraud in the south, marked the end of Reconstruction in the south. The “Compromise of 1877” placed the Republican Hayes in the White House, in exchange for the final withdrawal of federal troops and the installation of “Redeemer” governments in Louisiana and South Carolina, and the return of “home rule”—giving the southern landlord and merchants a free hand in organizing class and racial relations in the region.41

The “Redemption” governments were not able to either deprive African-Americans of citizenship or suffrage, or impose capitalist plantation agriculture in the south in the 1870s and 1880s. However, the Democratic representatives of the planters and merchants rolled back key advances of the Reconstruction government. First, the Redeemers cut government spending, reducing funding for the public schools and hospitals both black and white farmers had relied upon. While reducing taxes on landed property, the Democratic southern governments repealed “homestead exemptions” and “stay laws” that protect upcountry farmers; and imposed new “crop lien” laws giving merchants and landlords, rather than farmers and tenants, first claim on the cotton crop. Finally, they made local sheriffs, justices of the peace, and county commissioners appointed, rather than elected, officials, effectively purging African-Americans from these positions and removing the checks these black peasant-citizens had imposed on the planters and merchants in their dealings with their
sharecropping tenants.42

The new relationship of forces between the landlords and merchants on one side, and the African-American sharecroppers and white upcountry farmers on the other resulted in profound changes in rural class relations across the south in the 1870s and 1880s. Endemic shortages of cash led to the emergence of local “landlord-merchants” with territorial monopolies in the southern countryside. The landlord-merchant would provide food, clothing and agricultural supplies the sharecropper needed to initiate and survive the agricultural production cycle. In exchange, the landlord-merchants, who were the only source of credit and goods in a region, would charge inflated prices and usurious interest. Under the new lien laws, the merchants had first claim on the tenant’s share of the crop. Each year, the sharecroppers found themselves with little or no surplus after the sale of the cotton crop. Between their rent payment (usually half the crop) and payments of interest (approximately 14% of the crop) and principal, the sharecroppers were left with little beyond their own subsistence.43

In the upcountry, rising taxes compelled independent white farmers to devote more and more land and labor to the cultivation of cotton. As they were no longer able to produce the majority of their food, clothing, and household items, they were forced to borrow from local merchant-creditors to purchase these items. Like the African-American sharecroppers in the black belt, the upcountry white farmers were charged inflated prices for consumer goods and usurious rates of interest by local merchant-monopolists. By the late 1870s and early 1880s, a substantial portion of independent white farmers had lost title to their lands and were reduced to cash tenants or sharecroppers of the “merchant-landlords” of the upcountry south.44

For the first time since the end of indentured servitude in the late seventeenth century, the majority of poor whites and African-Americans occupied the same class position—they were tenant farmers. Their common class position produced the Southern Farmers’ Alliance, the most important multiracial social movement the south had ever experienced. The Southern People’s Parties and Farmers’ Alliances demanded new “homestead exemptions” on small property, government-owned banks, and new paper money to provide inexpensive credit, and government-owned railroads that would lower freight rates for farmers. The possibility of a national populist coalition of northern industrial workers and southern black and white farmers in the 1880s and 1890s sparked a new planter counter-offensive, supported by northern capital. Using the divisions between primarily African-American sharecroppers and mostly white cash tenants, the planters and merchants imposed legal segregation of public facilities, disenfranchised African-Americans and a substantial minority of poor whites, and maintained “order” in the plantation districts through lynch law and Klan terror.45

In the wake of the defeat of the Southern Farmers’ Alliance and the imposition of Jim Crow in the south, planters were able to begin to reorganize cotton production along capitalist lines. By the late 1870s, planters in the cotton belt divided their lands between lots leased to sharecroppers and lots cultivated by wage workers under their supervision.46 This balance began to shift in favor of centrally supervised wage labor after 1890. While planters continued to refer to their wage laborers as “croppers” and even “tenants”—often providing a cabin and garden plot and paying them with a share of the crop after the harvest—these workers did not supervise their own labor. Instead, they worked under the supervision of the planter in centralized gangs.47 In the first four decades of the twentieth century, the planters’ ability to organize the labor process under their command and fire workers at will allowed them to progressively mechanize southern agriculture.48

The consolidation of capitalism in the US during the Reconstruction period required the radical curtailment of substantive popular power and democratic rights for the vast majority of direct producers. In the north, the labor-capital struggle led the manufacturers to embrace liberal democracy—universal suffrage was preserved, but the scope of activity of the democratic state was limited to the preservation of individual property rights. In the south, the development of a substantive peasant-democracy in the late 1860s and 1870s consolidated non-capitalist sharecropping. Only the destruction of that radical plebian democracy and the creation of a racially-exclusive suffrage, backed up by legal and extra-legal violence and terror, allowed the consolidation of capitalism in southern agriculture after 1890. Put another way, the experience of Reconstruction provides yet another example of the incompatibility of substantive democratic power and capitalist class relations. 

1. Most of the following is based on Wood’s Democracy Against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), Chapter 7.
2. Peasant-Citizen and Slave: The Foundations of Athenian Democracy (London: Verso, 1989)
3. Democracy Against Capitalism, p. 213.
4. Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War (New York: Oxford University, Press 1970), Chapter 4.
5. Sven Beckert, The Monied Metropolis: New York City and the Consolidation of the American Bourgeoisie, 1850–1896 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), Chapters 3–4.
6. The following is based first and foremost on W.E.B. DuBois’ classic Black Reconstruction in America, 1860–1880 (New York: Atheneum Press, 1935) Chapters 1–3; Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), pp. 1–11; and Bruce Levine, The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution that Transformed the South (New York: Random House, 2012)
7. David Montgomery, Beyond Equality: Labor and the Radical Republicans, 1862–1872 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1967), pp. 81–89.
8. Foner, Reconstruction, pp. 62–68, 174–178.
9. Beckert, Monied Metropolis, pp. 135–144, 163–170; Montgomery, Beyond Equality, pp. 73–78.
10. Barbara J. Fields, “Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United States of America,” New Left Review I/181 (May–June 1990),pp. 109–110.
11. Beckert, Monied Metropolis, Chapter 2.
12. Montgomery 1967, x.
13. Montgomery, Beyond Equality, pp. 8, 30.
14. Montgomery, Beyond Equality, pp. 135–170.
15. Foner, Reconstruction, p. 477.
16. Montgomery, Beyond Equality, pp. 177–195, 237–249, Chapters 7–8.
17. Montgomery, Beyond Equality, pp. 252–260.
18. Foner, Reconstruction, pp. 333-345, 479–488; Montgomery, Beyond Equality, pp. 335–360.
19. Foner, Reconstruction, p. 486.
20. Beckert, Monied Metropolis, Chapter 7; Foner, Reconstruction, pp. 510–515, 582–587.
21. Wood, Capitalism Against Democracy, p. 227.
22. Foner, Reconstruction, pp.50–53.
23. Foner, Reconstruction, pp. 53–60, 66–68, 158–161.
24. Foner, Reconstruction, pp.123–135.
25. Foner, Reconstruction, p.198.
26. DuBois, Black Reconstruction, pp. 153–175; Foner, Reconstruction, pp. 197–216.
27. Susan A. Mann, Agrarian Capitalism in Theory and Practice (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1990) pp. 28–46.
28. Foner, Reconstruction, pp.  89–102, 110–119; Hahn 2002.
29. Foner, Reconstruction, p. 51.
30. Foner, Reconstruction, pp. 80–88.
31. R.L. Ransom and R. Sutch, One Kind of Freedom: The Economic Consequences of Emancipation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977), pp. 65–67, 232–236.
32. Foner 1988, 66–68, 142–153, 155–158, 161–170, 216–239; Hahn, et al. 2008, 31–39.
33. Foner, Reconstruction, p.  251.
34. Foner, Reconstruction, p.277; 242–279; DuBois, Black Reconstruction, pp. 325–379.
35. Foner, Reconstruction, pp. 281–345.
36. Foner, Reconstruction, pp. 399–409; Ransom and Sutch, One Kind, pp. 68–72, 90–94, 97–99; Mann, Capitalist Agriculture, Chapter 4.
37. DuBois, Black Reconstruction, Chapters X–XII, XV; Foner, Reconstruction, pp. 316–333, 364–376.
38. Foner, Reconstruction, p. 355; 351–356, 363–364.
39. Montgomery, Beyond Equality, p. 385; Foner, Reconstruction, pp. 452–459, 525–534, 554–>40. Foner, Reconstruction, pp. 536–545.
41. DuBois, Black Reconstruction, pp. 379–386; Foner, Reconstruction, pp. 547–553, 568–585.
42. DuBois, Black Reconstruction, Chapter XVI; Foner, Reconstruction, pp. 412–424, 588–593.
43. Ransom and Sutch, One Kind of Freedom, pp. 81–170.
44. Steven Hahn, The Roots of Southern Populism: Yeoman Farmers and the Transformation of the Georgia Upcountry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), Chapters 4–5.
45. Mike Davis, Prisoners of the American Dream (London: Verso, 1986), pp. 29–40; C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (New York: Oxford University Press, 1955).
46. Gavin Wright, Old South, New South: Revolutions in the Southern Economy Since the Civil War (New York: Basic Books, 1986), pp. 90–91.
47. Wright, Old South, New South, Chapter 4
48. Mann, Capitalist Agriculture, Chapter 5.


Charlie Post

Charlie Post is a long-time socialist political activist who teaches at the City University of New York and is active in his faculty union. This essay is adapted from the conclusion to his book, The American Road to Capitalism (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012).