Abolitionism is one of the many things I want to know a whole lot more about. Among the questions I have are was the abolitionist movement revolutionary? What made it, or pieces of it, revolutionary? Was abolition a revolutionary goal? I don’t feel like I can answer any of those at all adequately at this point. I also think it’s worth asking what the stakes are to those questions.

Geert Dohnt’s essay “Toward an American Revolutionary Praxis” writes that “Anarchists in the United States tend to know more about Russia’s Makhnovist movement or the details of the Spanish Civil War than about—for example—the Abolitionist Movement, the Reconstruction era, or the Civil Rights Movement.” That’s probably true. Personally, I probably know as much about the latter three as I do about the Spanish Civil War, but that’s because I know little about the Spanish Civil War, not because I know much about those other periods. What’s very clear is that those other periods were crucial for shaping U.S. history — and were times of masses and radicals in motion — in ways that communists today ought to know about.

Dohndt goes on to praise what he calls the New Abolitionists, around the journal Race Traitor. Some material from a group call the New Abolitionist Society is available online at the Race Traitor web site here and it’s all stuff I’d like to read thoroughly, along with the Sojourner Truth Organization papers on whiteness, as it seems like the Race Traitor stuff has important roots in STO. Apparently the terms “new abolitionist” and “new abolitionism” have other uses too, like in this wikipedia article about “neoabolitionism.” The wikipedia neoabolitionism article deals with some controversies in the historiography about abolitionism, I’m not getting into that here, not least because it doesn’t mean a lot to me since I know little about abolitionism. It also says that the early NAACP and Du Bois sometimes described themselves as new abolitionists, and mentions a book by Howard Zinn about SNCC as being new abolitionists. Kari Lerum’s article “The New Abolitionists and their critics” mentions that some anti- human trafficking efforts call themselves new abolitionists, and the Campaign to End the Death Penalty titled their newsletter “The New Abolitionist.”

All of these involve efforts to recall or reclaim the efforts of the abolitionists and to cast contemporary actors as acting in the spirit of the abolitionists. I’m for all of that, at least for the most part. We should know more about all this — we should recall those efforts and keep them present in our own minds and in the world/culture at large today.

At the same time, depicting one’s self/one’s group as following on from “the abolitionists” means different things depending on one’s political views, and this also shapes which abolitionists one is referring to. From what I know, “the abolitionists” is sort of like saying “the anti-globalization movement,” though a bit more coherent than that. A lot depends on what “abolitionist” means. If it just means “people who wanted an end to slavery” then it’s a broad term. Among other things, from what know of, there were gradual abolitionists and immediate abolitionists, abolitionists who favored compensation to slave owners for the financial loss resulting from emancipation and abolitionists who opposed compensation, there were abolitionists who were strongly anti-racist and there were abolitionists who opposed the institution and practices of slavery but who were still quite racist, and there abolitionists who wanted freed blacks to leave and abolitionists who didn’t want that. These are all matters I want to know more about and that I think most people should know more about too.

If we’re only talking about ending slavery, that seems to me an important and laudable goal, and one that called much of American society into question. I would say that this makes many abolitionists very radical. Many abolitionists were also willing to use very militant tactics. The group that raided the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry are a rightly famous example, they and their various supporters who aided the effort clearly were quite radical in a sense of militant tactics. Likewise people involved in the underground railroad, like Harriet Tubman and John P. Parker, as well as slaves who ran away, revolted, and otherwise fought slavery. Clearly abolitionism was a movement for freedom at least most of the time (I have doubts about people who wanted gradual, compensated emancipation followed by deportation of freed blacks, there’s *some* element of a call for freedom in that but I wouldn’t call that a movement for freedom).

I’m still not sure about calling this revolutionary, though, in the sense of a social revolution against capitalism. For one thing, various generals for the north had plans for emancipation as part of the war effort. That seems to me to be further evidence that there were reformist versions of emancipation.
Abolition was clearly a radical egalitarian movement and an important one which created a massive crisis for U.S. and world capitalism. Still, in some respects, at least for some abolitionists like perhaps John Parker, I’m tempted to say that they were reformists. They were militant, brave, principled freedom fighters and that should be respected immensely and we should all know more about this and could learn a ton from it. But they seemed to want a radical equality within capitalism and they didn’t seek to end capitalism. (I haven’t read it in a long time but there’s discussion in Amy Dru Stanley’s book From Bondage to Contract about the ideas some abolitionist held about ‘free’ waged labor; that’s relevant here.) I feel intensely nervous saying all this because there’s often a moral/moralistic charge to these terms — “revolutionary” is a good thing and “reformist” is a bad thing, it’s hard not to hear and say these words as if they were judgments of people’s character. I don’t mean any of that. I respect these people immensely as I’ve tried to say. But “I respect you immensely, therefore I will call you a revolutionary” is a very bad move. It turns “revolutionary” into basically an honorific, into a compliment with little content.

Let me put it this way. Dohndt writes about the need to recognize “the centrality of the struggle against white supremacy in the fight for a new and free society.” Yes, absolutely. But it seems to me that that struggle against white supremacy is necessary but not sufficient for a revolutionary transformation. That’s a bigger, more important, and harder subject so I’m going to duck it for now. For my purposes here, recognition of the need to abolish white supremacy is a necessary component of any genuinely communist perspective. Someone who doesn’t recognize that need is not a communist or revolutionary. But someone who does recognize that need, someone who acts against white supremacy is not necessarily a communist or revolutionary. Recognition of that need and action against white supremacy can take the form of reformism as well.

I should add — I have no doubts that the New Abolitionist perspective that Dohndt talks about, the Race Traitor perspective, is a revolutionary perspective, it’s a new revolutionary abolitionism. I’m not sure if I find the argument convincing that abolishing whiteness is a precondition for revolution and I’m not sure if I’m convinced that ending whiteness is a sufficient part of revolutionary transformation (I’m also not sure if either of these views is the actual argument made by Dohndt and/or the, I’ve not really read this stuff — I plan to; Dohndt’s essay details a lot of material that sounds great that I want to engage with seriously, along with the material online at the Race Traitor site — but I have had conversations with individuals who believe one or both of these things so I know *some* people believe these), but clearly this is important stuff and clearly the Race Traitor version of new abolitionism is a revolutionary perspective.

Final thought — this also relates to the stuff I’ve been slowly reading about the Haitian revolution, about what makes something a revolution and what sort of revolution. Clearly Haiti had a revolution, a political revolution and a social revolution. I’m not sure it was an anti-capitalist revolution or a communist revolution, though. That is not the only thing that matters, and maybe it doesn’t matter at all, but it’s something I’d like to think more about.