Did I return from vacation to an alternate 2019? Did Biff actually succeed with the DeLorean after all? Of all the strange outcomes to pop up in this version of the universe, “RNC endorses World Socialist Website’s credibility” was somewhere around the millionth rank of possibilities.
“And they’d be correct” ranked around the billionth mark. Earlier today, RNC spokesperson Liz Harrington issued the strange-yet-true endorsement of World Socialist Website’s deep dive into the integrity of the New York Times — and especially its “1619 Project” fantasy that might get projected into schools around the country:
The NY Times has become radical left-wing activists, not journalists — and certainly not historians
Historian Gordon Wood sets the record straight on the Times' 1619 Project — which is nothing more than anti-American propaganda https://t.co/YFzMR815Xd
— Elizabeth Harrington (@LizRNC) December 3, 2019
There is plenty of irony here already, but perhaps the sharpest is from the WSWS itself. The hard Left has lots of investment in the notion that America is racist in its very bones and the only cure is radical socialism, so it’s strange indeed that they were among the only publications to dismantle that very argument from the New York Times. In fact, the WSWS did what the New York Times failed to do — contact actual expert historians about their premise, especially Pulitzer recipient Gordon Wood, who wrote extensively on the American Revolution and its purpose.
John wrote about the interviews themselves over the weekend and the debunking of the idea that the American Revolution was fought to preserve slavery, but let’s focus on the media-integrity argument here. Wood tells Tom Mackaman that the first he knew of the NYT’s intentions is when he opened his paper:
Q. I want to return to the question of slavery and the American Revolution, but first I wanted to follow up, because you said you were not approached. Yet you are certainly one of the foremost authorities on the American Revolution, which the 1619 Project trains much of its fire on.
A. Yes, no one ever approached me. None of the leading scholars of the whole period from the Revolution to the Civil War, as far I know, have been consulted. I read the Jim McPherson interview and he was just as surprised as I was.
The WSWS interviewed McPherson as well earlier in November about the NYT’s argument. McPherson, who won a Pulitzer as well for his book on the Civil War, found out about this exactly as Wood did:
Q. What was your initial reaction to the 1619 Project?
A. Well, I didn’t know anything about it until I got my Sunday paper, with the magazine section entirely devoted to the 1619 Project. Because this is a subject I’ve long been interested in I sat down and started to read some of the essays. I’d say that, almost from the outset, I was disturbed by what seemed like a very unbalanced, one-sided account, which lacked context and perspective on the complexity of slavery, which was clearly, obviously, not an exclusively American institution, but existed throughout history. And slavery in the United States was only a small part of a larger world process that unfolded over many centuries. And in the United States, too, there was not only slavery but also an antislavery movement. So I thought the account, which emphasized American racism—which is obviously a major part of the history, no question about it—but it focused so narrowly on that part of the story that it left most of the history out.
Just how committed was WSWS to debunking the idea that the American experiment was all about racism? They interviewed yet a third historian, the award-winning James Oakes, to underscore just how far off the NYT’s thesis was from reality. In an excerpt also highlighted in John’s post, Oakes declares the NYT’s approach as essentially nihilistic as well as “anti-historical”:
Q. And a point we made in our response to the 1619 Project, is that it dovetails also with the major political thrust of the Democratic Party, identity politics. And the claim that is made, and I think it’s almost become a commonplace, is that slavery is the uniquely American “original sin.”
A. Yes. “Original sin,” that’s one of them. The other is that slavery or racism is built into the DNA of America. These are really dangerous tropes. They’re not only ahistorical, they’re actually anti-historical. The function of those tropes is to deny change over time. It goes back to those analogies. They say, “look at how terribly black people were treated under slavery. And look at the incarceration rate for black people today. It’s the same thing.” Nothing changes. There has been no industrialization. There has been no Great Migration. We’re all in the same boat we were back then. And that’s what original sin is. It’s passed down. Every single generation is born with the same original sin. And the worst thing about it is that it leads to political paralysis. It’s always been here. There’s nothing we can do to get out of it. If it’s the DNA, there’s nothing you can do. What do you do? Alter your DNA?
And again, this is what makes the WSWS rebuttals so compelling. Not only are they authoritative, they actually argue against the socialist interest. Both McPherson and Oakes take pains to debunk one of the tenets of the 1619 Project, which is that slavery was an outcome of a capitalist system. Not only did slavery long predate capitalism, but as McPherson notes, it belongs to another kind of economic model altogether:
A. Yes, that’s right. That part of it—that the South is as capitalist as the North, or Great Britain—is unpersuasive to me. Certainly, they were part of a capitalist world order. There’s no question about that. Cotton and sugar were central. But the idea that the ideology of the planter class in the South was a capitalist ideology, there I’ve always been a little bit more on the side of Eugene Genovese,  who sees the southern ideology as seigneurial.
The plantation economy was an extension of a feudal system that was already outmoded by 1619, but was perpetuated by the slave trade in many places along with the American South. Wood argues that Northern capitalism produced the first enlightened response to slavery, which also goes unchallenged by the WSWS. The interviewer draws Oakes out in much more detail in his defense of capitalism from the NYT’s conclusions:
Desmond, following the lead of the scholars he’s citing, basically relies on the same analogy. They’re saying, “look at the ways capitalism is just like slavery, and that’s because capitalism came from slavery.” But there’s no actual critique of capitalism in any of it. They’re saying, “Oh my God! Slavery looks just like capitalism. They had highly developed management techniques just like we do!” Slaveholders were greedy, just like capitalists. Slavery was violent, just like our society is. So there’s a critique of violence and a critique of greed. But greed and violence are everywhere in human history, not just in capitalist societies. So there’s no actual critique of capitalism as such, at least as I read it.
There’s this famous book on the crop lien system and debt peonage in the late 19th century South called Slavery by Another Name. [Douglas Blackmon, 2008] It wasn’t slavery. But it was a horrible system and naturally you want to attack it so you liken it to slavery. So that’s the basic conceptual thrust of what we’re now reading.
One of the things that Desmond does in his piece, and he did in the podcast as well, is to leap from the inequality of wealth in slavery to enormous claims about capitalism. He will say that the value of all the slaves in the South was equal to the value of all the securities, factories, and railroads, and then he’ll say, “So you see, slavery was the driving force of American capitalism.” But there’s no obvious connection between the two. Does he want to say that gross inequalities of wealth are conducive to robust economic development? If so, we should be in one of the greatest economic expansions of all time right now, now that the maldistribution of wealth has reached grotesque levels.
This ignores a large and impressive body of scholarship produced a generation ago by historians of the capitalist transformation of the North, all of it pointing to the northern countryside as the seedbed of the industrial revolution. Christopher Clark, Jeanne Boydston, John Faragher, Jonathan Prude and others—these were and are outstanding scholars, and anyone interested in the origins of American capitalism must come to terms with them. Some of them, like Amy Dru Stanley and Christopher Tomlins, launched sophisticated criticisms of capitalism. The “New Historians of Capitalism,” reflected in the 1619 Project, ignore that scholarship and revert instead to standard neo-liberal economics. There’s nothing remotely radical about it.
Whether one agrees with Oakes and McPherson on this point, it’s stunning to see a defense of capitalism of any sort on the pages of the World Socialist Website. It’s even more stunning than having the RNC endorse their journalism and research on this topic, both of which are (also ironically) far superior to the NYT’s 1619 Project. Whatever anyone thinks of their viewpoint and agenda otherwise, the WSWS deserves a lot of credit for doing what nearly every other mainstream news outlet did not do — and what school districts are apparently not doing, either.
2019 is turning out to be a strange trip, indeed.