The Worker

Gerald Horne: promoting British empire apologia to divert radicals into the Democratic Party

By Rainer Shea. Originally published on Rainer’s newsletter at:

To find the route that Marxists need to take at the present juncture in order to best advance the class struggle, look at the state of our discourse and ask: what ideas are the ruling class primarily utilizing in order to prevent proletarian consciousness from rising? The answer is the ideas put forth by the “left” side within America’s bourgeois partisan spectrum, the ideas that supposedly aid the struggles of marginalized groups yet truly let the ruling class exploit these groups for the sake of fighting against Marxism.

The present form that ruling class psyops primarily take

With the loss of the Republicans during the last election cycle, which happened due to the popular failure of the recent transphobic propaganda from reactionaries like Matt Walsh, the strategy of weaponizing wokeness was solidified as the optimal route for the ruling class to take until the conditions change. 

The anti-LGBT hate campaign is only successful insofar as it can persuade many reactionaries to participate in or condone fascist violence, which the vast majority of the American people are disgusted by. The same goes for the campaign to demonize “Critical Race Theory,” which most Americans also aren’t persuaded by because the majority of society supports the movement against racial police brutality. So is the case for the anti-abortion campaign, which most people have been alienated or alarmed by. Associating the bourgeois, imperial order with reactionary or fascist ideas is not the winning strategy for the ruling class narrative managers. They need to sanitize the empire and the neoliberal austerity paradigm, make it look progressive and friendly. That’s why they try so hard to hide the fact that Biden is sending aid to Ukrainian Nazis, and to claim Ukraine’s government has no ties to Azov.

The effectiveness of the Democratic Party’s narrative management strategy of woke imperialism, where militarist adventurism like the Ukraine aid project gets spun as necessary for advancing social justice, has influenced the direction that the empire’s psyops take. To most effectively advance imperialism and frustrate the proletariat’s mobilization, the ruling class needs to portray its machinations as socially progressive. Which can be done simply by making reformist, anti-working class politics appear to be the best option for marginalized peoples. It’s in this mission of promoting a distorted view of liberation theory, designed to make this theory’s adherents consider everything besides class, that the popular liberal historian Gerald Horne fills a crucial role. That role being to promote a view of history which is fundamentally incompatible with historical materialism.

The manipulation tactic where class gets purposefully omitted from discussions of racial, sexual, national, and gender liberation conversations within bourgeois academia and social commentary is key to what the ruling class wants to do. Because these types of liberation theory are in themselves worth exploring, and the groups they pertain to are increasingly in need of solidarity as the threat of fascist violence against them intensifies. But their struggles won’t succeed if class is forbidden from being part of any of these conversations, because when class is absent from the discussion, the Democratic Party will always be able to successfully co-opt (and therefore handicap) these struggles. Both the class liberation movement and the identity-based movements are threatened by the Democratic Party’s opportunism.

The question of which socioeconomic system is perpetuating social injustice; the question of how working class women, LGBT people, and nonwhite people can attain true democratic control and not be forced to work for poverty wages; the prospect of these groups and the rest of the working class uniting on the basis of their shared material interests; all of this is ignored within the ideological spheres that the Democrats cultivate. The politicians who’ve decided to operate within capital’s “left” flank can say they’ll end systemic injustice, while doing nothing more than picking up reluctant lesser evil votes and then doing nothing substantial to fulfill their promises.

That’s the cycle which the Democratic Party’s grift takes the form of. The indispensable ingredient in this grift is the omission and obfuscation of the class struggle. Because leaving out class creates such an enormous chasm within one’s sociopolitical analysis that this absence must then be filled in with pseudo-theory. With narratives that replace the analyses of Marx, Lenin, Mao, and the other contributors to instructions on class struggle. Without these substitutes for actual theory, it will be too transparent that the grifters lack credibility. They must cultivate the illusion that they know what they’re talking about.

The arguments that Horne makes about modern America’s conditions are an influential example of this, and they’re a red flag for the misleading parts of his historical analyses. Horne has argued that building a unified workers movement isn’t possible without addressing the settler-colonial subjugation against Native and African workers, which is true. The trouble starts to become apparent when you pay attention to exactly how he’s chosen to argue this point. In one op-ed, he’s written:

When Euro-Americans vote across class lines for faux billionaires, we are instructed that the reason is that the opposition did not meet their exacting progressive standards—hence, they voted for the right.  (Once when I was explaining to a prominent left-leaning scribe that the citadel of the elite, the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and the citadel of the Euro-American working and middle classes, Staten Island, are the bastions of the right wing in Gotham, he demurred seeking to point out that the latter borough voted thusly because of liberal failings: and, yes, he had never heard of John Marchi, Staten Island’s decades long proto-fascist GOP boss, re-elected repeatedly.)  Of course, this miscomprehension begs the question as to why descendants of the enslaved even in the same borough and nationwide—marinated in the ultimate class struggle of slaves versus slaveholder—vote against the right wing in extraordinarily high numbers.

Here Horne has recognized the reality of class only so that he can take the opportunity to promote an anti-proletarian myth, a myth which has been promoted by the Democratic Party: that the MAGA movement’s primary base is in the working class, rather than the labor aristocracy and the petty bourgeoisie. Even though data has shown Trump voters are disproportionately not in the working class, Horne has talked about this Manhattan example in isolation to imply that the working class makes up the core of Trump’s supporters. Any analysis that omits the particularly high concentration of upper strata voters within the right’s supporting demographics is done so with the intent of portraying America’s working class as inherently reactionary. 

This is not done for anti-racist purposes, but for classist purposes. Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” remark was not made to denounce racism, it was made to denounce the working class. Which despite liberal portrayals is to be found relatively sparsely among Trump’s base.

The false notions of history that support these psyops

The truth is that to find the demographic where working class people are disproportionately present, you need to look among the half or so of the country that typically doesn’t vote. That isn’t materially invested in either bourgeois party, and doesn’t electorally participate either because they’re too alienated from the system or because voting is wildly difficult for the poorest people. Tens of millions among them regularly go hungry, often fall behind on their bills, and have a good chance of being evicted should a crisis hit them. These people certainly sound like they have the institutional influence to be able to maintain systemic racism, thwarting the wishes of the powerless coastal elites with their super PACs and billionaire-funded NGOs. 

Horne perpetuates this classist myth both by directly repeating it, and by constructing a narrative about U.S. history that makes the myth appear to be vindicated by an analysis of the country’s past. This narrative depends on apologia for the British empire.

Minimizing the evils of the Brits is an obvious sign of imperial chauvinism, but in Horne’s case, it’s only a byproduct of his real goal: to portray U.S. history in a way that’s primarily or entirely simplified to a racial struggle. His goal is not to combat class reductionism, but to promote race reductionism. Whether he intends this as a means for frustrating class struggle isn’t relevant, because simply due to the anti-Marxist ways in which he frames history, the Democratic Party (and its infiltrators within the communist movement) use his ideas for this purpose. These anti-Marxist actors aren’t misusing his work, they’re doing the only thing that his work is capable of being used for: to sabotage the ability of developing radicals to grasp historical materialism. Which has the effect of not just spreading the lie about America’s working class being fundamentally reactionary, but as has the effect of making leftist thought compatible with imperialist foreign affairs narratives.

In his essay on Horne’s book The Counter-Revolution of 1776, Fred Schleger of World Socialist Website summarizes why Horne’s account should not be believed: “Horne’s scholarship does not stand up to the slightest scrutiny. Horne’s work is worse than inaccurate: it is, in large measure, a work of fiction. His interpretation of source material is so inaccurate as to be fanciful: quotes are truncated to invert their meaning, sources are misattributed, and even elementary facts are misrepresented—or are just plain wrong. Honest historians, who deal with a vast array of sources, make mistakes here and there. What makes Horne’s misrepresentations so galling is not just their magnitude and number, but that they are central to his project of rewriting American history.”

I could go over the many indisputably false representations of history the book makes, from portraying Benjamin Franklin as pro-slavery; to putting forth out-of-context quotes that make it look like the supporters of the American revolution were concerned Britain would free the slaves; to acting like a 1772 court case threatening American slavery was a catalyst for the revolution when the American crisis had begun well before that point; to arguing Rhode Island was fighting to preserve slavery when it was one of the first states in the early U.S. to abolish it; to assigning desire to preserve slavery as the central concern among the American revolutionaries when no recorded documents of theirs articulate such a concern. The only statement of theirs referencing the 1772 case was one by Franklin, in which he regarded the decision as essentially correct (though Franklin didn’t think it went far enough). From studying just how wrong Horne is, it becomes apparent that the Founding Fathers who were pro-slavery did not regard Britain as any kind of threat to the continuation of human property. 

But these facts do not get in the way of the types of thinkers who believe Horne is correct. At least not the intellectually honest ones. Because they don’t believe he’s correct due to thinking his claims are consistently accurate, they believe he’s correct because in the logic of the liberal anti-Marxist ruling class psyop, his stance can’t be anything besides correct. He’s seen as right simply because he transgresses against the conventional academic view of the Revolutionary War, and therefore deserves praise for this regardless of how much evidence is there to support that view. 

The view of 1776 that’s been consistently put forth by historical materialists like Marx and Lenin, in which it’s correctly regarded as a progressive event, is seen by these “progressives” as wrong. Because according to them, the primary contradiction at the time was not the rule of the British empire and of the old feudal power elite, but the contradiction of white supremacy within America itself. Which rejects historical materialism, and therefore Marxism, by disregarding the importance of geopolitics within the development towards revolution.

Schleger concludes that “Horne’s book serves a modern-day political purpose, which Horne himself has made clear in numerous public pronouncements: to advance racial politics in the modern-day United States, and to reject the idea that there was any progressive content in the American Revolution.” But I would go further, and say the purpose of this goal is to discredit class struggle and anti-imperialism. Racial politics isn’t a bad thing in itself, it becomes problematic when it’s twisted to advance a malign objective. When one rejects historical materialism, and believes the presence of contradictions in a state that’s fighting against reactionary forces necessarily renders this state not on the revolutionary side, they can be led to support U.S. imperialism. The logic of somebody who portrays the British empire as revolutionary because the USA was settler-colonial is the same logic of somebody who sides with NATO because Russia is capitalist. 

The question this begs is: “Russia is capitalist. And?” For a historical materialist, the Russian state being bourgeois changes nothing about which side in the conflict should be supported. In the context of Russia’s fight to stop an attempted genocide against them by a fascist, U.S.-installed regime in Kiev, the class character of the Russian state is the secondary contradiction. The primary contradictions are the fascist ethnic persecution imposed upon cultural Russians in eastern Ukraine, and the presence of U.S. imperial hegemony.

The only way to justify this stance is by falsely portraying Russia as imperialist, even though its economic relationship to the peripheral countries is not an imperialist one. This is akin to when Horne justifies his apologia for Britain by exaggerating the degree to which the Founding Fathers had contradictions, spinning absolutely fabricated stories about Franklin having been pro-slavery. The rhetorical tactic is the same: exaggerate the contradictions on the revolutionary side of a conflict while minimizing the contradictions on the reactionary side, and use this to override analyses on what the primary contradiction in the situation is.

Horne is such a gift to anti-Marxism because his liberal stances, which his misleading 1776 analysis consistently relates to, provides narrative help for all who seek to discredit the science of Marxism-Leninism. It can even be used in this way by the polemicists who oppose his analysis of 1776. Later in his essay, Schleger, who’s a Trotskyist, points to Horne’s statement that Stalin was no worse than the Founding Fathers. Schleger acts like this minimizes Stalin’s supposed wrongdoings, when all it does is reinforce the narrative liberals have always advanced in regards to Stalin: that because Stalin was guilty of atrocities according to the campfire bogeyman image that bourgeois culture has assigned to him, Marxism-Leninism should be rejected. 

That the accounts tying Stalin to these real or supposed atrocities all come from Cold War historical fiction writers, opportunistic political rivals of Stalin, or actual Nazi propagandists is disregarded by these types, whether they’re anti-Marxists or Marxists who’ve adopted a sectarian stance towards “Stalinism.” Like the liberals and even Marxists who cling to Horne as a source, they’re not concerned with the accuracy of the ideas they promote, but with which side these ideas represent. If they represent the side they’ve committed to, they’ll continue to engage in self-deception, rather than face that they’ve been deceiving themselves for the sake of an ulterior motive.

Rejecting Horne and his ideas is vital for the success of the American communist movement. These ideas are what the NGO (i.e. liberal) side of the state’s counterinsurgency effort against class struggle uses in order to infiltrate Marxist spaces. As long as the liberals can sufficiently co-opt liberation struggles, those struggles will remain not enough of a threat for the state to have to fully bring out the counterinsurgency’s fascist aspect. When we’ve built up enough organizational strength, and broken from the Democratic Party in our practice and ideas, then the state will get desperate, and use fascism as a last measure for trying to stop us.

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