If Barack Obama becomes America’s first black president, he will fit nicely into a radical narrative that places leftists always and everywhere combating bigotry, shattering stereotypes, and advancing race relations. Indeed, merely to oppose him, as the Clintons, Geraldine Ferraro, and the voters of Kentucky, West Virginia, and Indiana have discovered, is to invite charges of “racism” from his enthusiastic supporters — a trend that is sure to increase now that the contest has ceased to be an intramural one.
But history rarely conforms to the scripts that ideologues write. Racism, as important to understanding the American past as class divisions are to understanding European history, stains the history of homegrown radicals just as it stains the history of the nation which those radicals sought to change so radically. The American history that the Left lambastes is the American Left’s history, too.
Welsh industrialist Robert Owen effectively launched the American Left that is recognizable to us today. His “Declaration of Mental Independence,” issued on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, assailed “a trinity of the most monstrous evils” — private property, marriage, and traditional religion. That program certainly sounds familiar. But one “monstrous evil” is noticeably absent from the utopian socialist Owen’s list: racism.
The ill-fated communal endeavor that Owen founded at New Harmony, Indiana, demonstrates how the white Left could be as snobbish toward racial minorities as the worst of their fellow countrymen. Owen’s Indiana commune excluded African Americans. “Persons of color may be received as helpers to the Society, if necessary,” New Harmony’s 1825 constitution condescended, “or if it be found useful, to prepare and enable them to become associates in Communities in Africa; or in some other country, or in some other part of this country.” In other words, anywhere but New Harmony.
The successors of 1820s’ Owenite communism, the movements inspired by Frenchman Charles Fourier that proliferated in the 1840s, exhibited a similar disregard for the plight of African Americans. Future presidential candidate Horace Greeley, future presidential assassin Charles Guiteau, and novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne were each caught up in the communal mania. But few blacks were. Like Owen, the Fourierists compared the condition of southern slaves favorably to that of northern industrial workers, providing fodder for apologists of the South’s “peculiar institution.”
For instance, the lead article in the inaugural issue of The Phalanx — the Fourierist’s official publication — claimed, “There are other social evils growing out of the same original falseness in the present system, which are equally unjust and oppressive as slavery, and which first demand our consideration.” The other injustices equivalent to slavery, the paper coolly noted, included “hireling dependence,” “monastic vows,” and “poverty.” Though slavers had no discernable role in the Fourierist craze, neither did African Americans.
Though antebellum utopians were largely indifferent to the plight of African Americans, the socialists and progressives who succeeded them aggressively advanced racist prejudices dressed up as science and progress. Instead of merely ignoring the problems of African Americans, the socialist and progressive Left actively contributed to them.
For Appeal to Reason, the most successful publication in the history of the American Left, segregation was intrinsic to socialism. Whereas “private ownership of industries mixes up the races, reducing blacks, whites, and yellows to a common level,” Appeal to Reason noted that “socialism would separate the races and lift them all to the highest level each were capable.” “The white worker in the shop, mine, and factory is told that Socialism means race equality,” the Girard, Kansas–based weekly explained, but in reality “capitalism has forced him to work side by side with the negro, and for about the same wage. . . . [I]n the SIGHT OF THE CAPITALIST ALL WORKERS LOOK ALIKE.” The Appeal, as did so many of its turn-of-the-century leftist readers, railed against the “yellow peril” and “Mongolian hordes” allegedly stealing jobs from “American” union workers.