Notes on “Abolition” and “Revolution”

“Abolition of wages,” “abolition of town and country,” “abolition of family,” “abolition of religion,” “abolition of labor…”

What does it mean to “abolish?”

In the most simple sense it means to simply get rid of, to end, to be done with. And yet it seems more complicated than that.

The use of the term “abolish” can be overdone, especially when it is used too broadly and without consideration for the reconstructive elements of revolution. Polemic is nothing new to Leftist movements. Indeed, what was the Communist Manifesto if not a scathing polemic? But abolition must seek to find the awaiting social relationships and forms that must be practiced, not merely assume that natural social relationships are already there and simply buried or distorted. We must consider how “abolition” connects to the battle over what Raymond Williams calls “residual” and “emergent” cultures, neither of which are wholly reactionary or revolutionary by their own nature.

A residual culture is usually at some distance from the effective dominant culture, but one has to recognize that, in real cultural activities, it may get incorporated into it. This is because some part of it, some version of it – and especially if the residue is from some major area of the past – will in many cases have had to be incorporated if the effective dominant culture is to make sense in those areas. It is also because at certain points a dominant culture cannot allow too much of this kind of practice and experience outside itself, at least without risk. Thus the pressures are real, but certain genuinely residual meanings and practices in some important cases survive. By  ’emergent’ I mean, first, that new meanings and values, new practices, new significances and experiences, are continually being created. But there is then a much earlier attempt to incorporate them, just because they are part – and yet not a defined part – of effective contemporary practice. Indeed it is significant in our own period how very early this attempt is, how alert the dominant culture now is to anything that can be seen as emergent. We have then to see, first, as it were a temporal relation between a dominant culture and on the one hand a residual and on the other an emergent culture. But we can only understand this if we can make distinctions, that usually require very precise analysis, between residual-incorporated and residual not incorporated, and between emergent-incorporated and emergent not incorporated. (Williams, “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Theory,” Culture and Materialism, 41).

The abolition of slavery in the United States was not merely a prohibition on the buying and selling of human beings, but the conscious transformation of human relationships that demanded a transformation of the material basis of society. It was an enforced destruction of a practice, but also a reconstruction. It was the abolition of a form of right (the right to force other human beings into servitude) that demanded a whole social effort to ensure new relationships and infrastructures. It is partly in this sense that Du Bois called reconstruction a failed revolution.

The historical example of the American abolition movement against chattel slavery may appear now as a rather odd example: nobody would want to say that it was worth salvaging some kind of good residual relationship from the practice of slavery. Indeed, residual practices were maintained and are maintained: voter suppression, sharecropping, attacks by the KKK and other hate groups. What W.E.B. Du Bois, and later on figures like Fred Hampton, recognized was not that there were residual relationships from the practice of slavery to be maintained, but that there were forms of solidarity that were even more vital because of the history and struggle against slavery and the forms of slavery, oppression, and domination that it maintained, which intertwined with the capitalist system in contradictory, violent, brutal ways. The goals and possibilities offered by abolition could not be reduced to “resetting” things, merely “doing away with.” There is, in fact, a reactionary possibility buried in abolition that thinks in such a way. Abraham Lincoln, taking after Henry Clay, continued to push for the possibility of returning all African Americans who had been subject to slavery back to the African continent. Frederick Douglass, in his speech on the revolutions of 1848, clearly recognizes how the struggle against slavery has interconnected the world, and a variety of other struggles.

France is not alone the scene of commotion. Her excitable and inflammable disposition makes her an appropriate medium for lighting more substantial fires. Austria has dispensed with Metternich, while all the German States are demanding freedom; and even iron-hearted Russia is alarmed and perplexed by what is going on around her. The French metropolis is in direct communication with all the great cities of Europe, and the influence of her example is everywhere powerful. The Revolution of the 24th February has stirred the dormant energies of the oppressed classes all over the continent. Revolutions, outbreaks, and provisional governments, followed that event in almost fearful succession. A general insecurity broods over the crowned heads of Europe. Ireland, too, the land of O’Connell, among the most powerful that ever advocated the cause of human freedom—Ireland, ever chafing under oppressive rule, famine-stricken, ragged and wretched, but warm-hearted, generous and unconquerable Ireland, caught up the inspiring peal as it swept across the bosom of St. George’s Channel, and again renewed her oath, to be free or die. Her cause is already sanctified by the martyrdom of Mitchell, and millions stand ready to be sacrificed in the same manner. England, too—calm, dignified, brave old England—is not unmoved by what is going on through the sisterhood of European nations. Her toiling sons, from the buzz and din of the factory and workshop, to her endless coal mines deep down below the surface of the earth, have heard the joyful sound of “Liberty—Equality—Fraternity” and are lifting their heads and hearts in hope of better days. (Fredrick Douglass, “The Revolutions of 1848,” https://rbscp.lib.rochester.edu/4388)

Hence the battle against slavery in the United States, an institution which Douglas insisted “exists in this land because of the moral, constitutional, political and religious support which it receives from the people of this country, especially the people of the North” couldn’t be merely abolished in the sense of a “removal,” but had to be abolished in the sense of a revolution in the social and material relationships of the nation with an international perspective. There is some irony here that the neo-Confederate sympathizers are, in a way, correct to proclaim there was a constitutional precedent for a state’s right to slavery, but what they don’t see is how this itself shows how the notion of right and ownership is itself contingent and built on particular forms of relationships, legal and social, and through force. If anything, it strengthens the positions of Douglas and Du Bois that a more total transformation – both North and South, and well beyond the borders of the United States – was really necessary. The abolition of slavery did not stop sharecropping, redlining, segregation, to say nothing of colonial efforts by the emerging industrialization of the US and the systemic genocide of indigenous peoples (which had already begun but would be particularly intensified by the Homestead Act). Abolition – in any form, not merely of slavery – is a continued process of building a new society. It requires building new social relations, not merely the absence of a particular set of legal codes or rights. It will require looking at what is worth preserving, what has been erased before, and what has never been.

Just as there existed an idealized and reactionary view of abolishing slavery in the form of resettlement, we can think too of reactionary abolition of wages in the anarcho-capitalist dream of the return to yeoman land ownership, where everyone somehow manages to be a petty-bourgeois proprietor. Some of the discussions about family abolition seem to suggest that eliminating the legal structures around the family will lead to a utopia where pair bonding will seemingly never appear again, some discussion of pushing beyond family into forms of abstract kinship bonding are tied to claims about reducing the human population by millions. Furthest down the spectrum are those who see abolition as a total return to an idealized Edenic state where human beings are so unalienated they wander the forests communing without language or abstract thought itself.

“Abolition” is not simply something we should use to make a term or concept dirty and distasteful, even if we are trying to abolish something with absolutely horrible, degrading, traumatic consequences. Abolition is not simply about closing off certain social practices, but about opening up entirely new realms of freedom in what people can do individually and as a whole. Sometimes this may be an issue of actual theory and goals, often it is merely a matter of communication and rhetoric. But even if it is often the latter, that is still important. If we cannot communicate what our theories and goals are, then we are more likely to see further splits and misunderstandings that are not productive or capable of conversing, but merely splinter away from each other. It is valuable to reveal that relationships taken for granted in today’s society often impinge on the autonomy of individuals, or still treat people as property (this is especially true in the criticisms of the nuclear family where women and children can often be claimed through legal structures as though they were someone’s property), but such an analysis already requires more than just the notion of abolition from the family. Oftentimes it’s not clear what “family” refers to in such contexts and what kinship relations are “familial,” especially since there are also kinship relations that can claim ownership or force people into certain roles in societies that do not (or did not) have the modern nuclear family or bourgeois property relations. To demand “abolition of town and country” would mean, to many people, either the creation of some kind of world-spanning metropolis or a return to some kind of idealized 18th century European pastoral scene. It is not obvious without much more discussion and understanding that it is really about the revolutionizing of the way that town and country interact, the way people are housed and fed, the way we interact with our ecology and the lifeforms we both shape and rely on to live. It is not merely an issue of “scary language,” but we need language that allows us to reflect on what we ourselves are fighting for: what we want to get rid of, yes, but also to debate what we would like to move towards and how we want to relate to one another and the world around us.

There is nothing wrong with being bold or utopian in our descriptions of human potential. To think of a world where human beings can take control of their own bodies to be any number of things, where anyone can have the opportunity to have or not have children regardless of their body or partnerships, where people can feel enabled to engage in creation and play and struggle in an autonomous and free way, these are all descriptions that feel powerful when understood through the stymieing weight that is already placed on our potential in the present. “Abolition” often takes the form of demands themselves, but “Revolution” is made up of demands and much more. There is a relationship between the two that is essential, but not always clear and which deserves better examination. We would perhaps do better not to simply speak of “abolition” on its own, but to speak of revolution in the transformation of entire social realities.

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