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Setting Our Sights on a Third Reconstruction

If our goal is a robust democracy and working-class power, the experiences of the Civil War-Reconstruction era and the Second Reconstruction of the 1950s-’60s provide crucial lessons for breaking out of our current impasse.

Selma to Montgomery March for the right to vote, 1965, Abernathy Family Photos via Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

“The white riot of January 6, 2021, at the US Capitol Building is impossible to understand without reference to earlier, yet strikingly similar, efforts during the First Reconstruction period. In both cases there were attempts to violently overthrow democratically held elections won with the aid of Black votes. To fully understand the challenges and opportunities of this moment, we must take a deep historical dive, one that braids together the most crucial aspects of these three [Reconstruction] periods and the repeated clashes between the forces of redemption [white supremacy] and the forces of reconstruction.”

–Peniel E. Joseph, The Third Reconstruction: America’s Struggle for Racial Justice in the Twenty-First Century, pp. 14-15.

With a genocide underway in Gaza and the threat of a MAGA victory in November hanging over our heads, it’s hard to avoid getting trapped in a strictly defensive mind-set. But it is essential to focus on the better future we are trying to create as well as the dangers we need to prevent, and see how these two components of a “Block and Build” strategy interrelate. Grasping both the dangers and the positive potential of today’s conflict is necessary to keep our balance and to tap the energies and turn out the votes of the pro-ceasefire and anti-MAGA majorities.

Highlighting the deep patterns of US history discussed in Peniel Joseph’s book and W.E.B. DuBois’ Black Reconstruction in America, which Joseph draws so much from, gives us one way to do that. Even a short review of the key lessons offers insights useful for staving off fascism and embarking on the path of popular empowerment and deep structural change.

Reconstructionists vs. Redeemers

Joseph explains the central thread in his argument in another passage from the introduction to The Third Reconstruction:

“For W.E.B. DuBois, ‘double consciousness’ did not refer simply to Black efforts to forge coherent identity in a country scarred by racial slavery… America itself has a dual identity, reflecting warring ideas about citizenship, freedom, and democracy. There is the America that we might call reconstructionist, home to champions of racial democracy, and there is the America we might call redemptionist, a country that papers over racial, class, and gender hierarchies through an allegiance to white supremacy.”

The Third Reconstruction, pp. 9-10

Using this lens to understand key junctures in US history sheds significant light on the ways democratic and class struggle intersect and interweave; the driving-force role of the Black laboring classes, and the synergies among electoral victories, direct action, and organizing on a mass scale. It underscores the necessity, and difficulty, of social justice partisans (“reconstructionists”) joining with inconsistent allies to defeat the outright reactionaries (self-styled “redeemers”) while also contending with those allies over the program and leadership of our coalition.  

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General strike, dictatorship of labor

W.E.B. DuBois debunked the “Lost Cause” myths about the Civil War and Reconstruction, revealing the actual course of events and the underlying dynamics that shaped them.  The most crucial points made by DuBois and those who built upon his work include:

  • Enslaved African Americans played a decisive role both in the US victory over the Confederacy and in making emancipation federal policy. DuBois characterized the multifaceted uprising of the enslaved as a “general strike” of what was then the country’s most oppressed labor force, as well as the sector which had produced the most capitalist profit.  
  • The Reconstruction governments were the most progressive in US history. The pre-war plantation economy had no social services for the enslaved or for poor whites. The new governments established after the war, protected by federal troops, were anchored by enfranchised African Americans who, in alliance with poor whites, constituted a governing majority. These governments established public schools and hospitals and provided aid and care to the poor. DuBois spoke of these governments in terms of “abolition democracy,” frequently characterizing them as a “dictatorship of labor” and even at times a “dictatorship of the proletariat.”
  • Abraham Lincoln was not part of the abolitionist movement, which was the grassroots force driving opposition to the “slave power” before and during the Civil War. Abolitionists including top leaders like Frederick Douglass harshly criticized and consistently pressured Lincoln. But abolitionists simultaneously saw his election to the Presidency in 1860, and his re-election in 1864, as crucial for advancing their cause. Asked what to make of Lincoln’s 1860 win, Frederick Douglass said:

“Not much, in itself considered, but very much when viewed in the light of its relations and bearings…. It has taught the North its strength and the South its weakness. More important still, it has demonstrated the possibility of electing, if not an Abolitionist, at least an anti-slavery reputation to the Presidency of the United States…. Mr. Lincoln’s election breaks the enchantment, dispels this terrible nightmare, and awakes the nation to the consciousness of new powers and the possibility of a higher destiny than the perpetual bondage to an ignoble fear.”

Life and Writings, vol. 2, p.528

  • The abolitionists and the enslaved who anchored the “general strike” were the fiercest opponents of slavery and as such contended for leadership in the broad coalition needed to win the Civil War and shape its aftermath. As the dynamics of war pushed all defenders of the union to the left, the Radical Republicans gained influence and became the dominant force in Congress. As such, they played the crucial role in winning the “Reconstruction Amendments” which provided legal basis for the Reconstruction governments and set a new bar for further advance of democracy and equality still used today.

This process is a textbook example of how strength gained in the fight to block the “slave power” produced the capacity to build anti-racist and pro-working class governing power during Reconstruction.

Civil Rights Movement drives a Second Reconstruction

Reconstruction was overturned by a self-identified force of white “Redeemers” using a combination of racist terror and disenfranchisement of African Americans. They were able to do so largely because key sections of the coalition that had won the Civil War—northern industrialists and all too many whites of the middle and working classes —abandoned the fight for Black rights.

Almost a hundred years of Jim Crow followed. Then, building on fights for equality during the 1930s workers’ upsurge, the double “V” campaign during World War II, and fresh stirrings of activism right after the war, a sustained Civil Rights offensive began in earnest with the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955. The dynamics of this “Second Reconstruction” parallelled the first in several ways:

  • Black America—particularly the overwhelmingly working-class Black population in the states of the former Confederacy—was again the driving force of what became a society-wide political flow.
  • As in the First Reconstruction, the gains made for Black equality and enfranchisement expanded democracy for all and tilted strongly in favor of workers and their families. While driving the end of Jim Crow, the Civil Right Movement broke the back of McCarthyism, ended racist immigration quotas, and played a powerful part in opposing the Vietnam War. The energy from the Civil Rights and Black Power struggles drove the launch of Medicare and revitalized freedom movements among Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Asian Americans, and Native Americans. It inspired second-wave feminism and the modern LGBTQ movement.
  • The 1964 landslide victory of Lyndon Johnson over anti-Civil Rights Act candidate Barry Goldwater was an important factor in winning passage of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act. The complicated relationship between the Civil Rights Movement and the Johnson administration (epitomized in the contend-and-agree, agree-and-contend see-saw between Johnson and Dr. King) was one of history’s “rhymes” with the unity-struggle relationship between abolitionism and the federal government under Abraham Lincoln.

Direct line from the redeemers to MAGA

Once again, a backlash against every hard-won gain took shape. Well-financed by the elite forces at its core and utilizing a sophisticated combination of electoral action and grassroots organizing, it moved from Nixon’s Southern Strategy through the Reagan era rise of neoliberalism to the Tea Party reaction to the country’s first Black President. In 2013 it achieved one of its paramount goals when the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act.  

That backlash has now reached its most intense phase with a MAGA-controlled GOP bidding for total federal power in the 2024 election. It is no coincidence that its banner—“Make America Great Again”—is a reworking of the “Redeem the Country” slogan under which the First Reconstruction was overturned. There is a direct line between the redeemers of the 1870s, the practitioners of “Massive Resistance” to de-segregation in the 1960s, and the MAGA bloc we face today.

A Third Reconstruction to expand on the first two

Many things have changed in the US and the world since the 1960s, not to mention the 1870s. Changes in demographics, the structure of the working class, gender relations, and the cataclysmic crisis of climate change loom especially large for formulating goals and strategies. But the structural dynamics that underlay the development and the overturn of First and Second Reconstruction have not disappeared. Combining an appreciation of those patterns with the adjustments mandated by changed circumstances brings several key points to the fore:

  • Just as broad fronts that extended far beyond abolitionists, the enslaved. or the Civil Rights Movement were necessary to defeat the slavocracy and then the segregationists, a broad front extending well beyond progressives and the Left is required to beat the MAGA “redeemers” today. That front manifests itself mainly in the electoral realm.
  • As in past periods, sustained, militant action by peoples located at the intersection of class exploitation and racial oppression and their allies is essential both for defeating the main enemy and for winning significant gains. The Black community remains the most consistently progressive and combative constituency in US politics. (It is worth stressing that there, alongside Arab and Muslim communities, is where internationalist sentiments and sympathy with the Palestinian struggle is strongest.) But changing demographics have heightened the importance and clout of Latino/a, Asian American, Arab and Muslim and Native peoples; and the political “gender gap” first noted in the 1970s and ‘80s has increased substantially in the era of MAGA.

As Frederick Douglass, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, and the movements they helped lead have shown, the impact from radical movements is greatest when they project a compelling narrative that that offers direction to all those claim allegiance to democracy. Appealing to our common humanity and shared self-interests while denouncing the injustices of the current system is the path to gaining both the political and moral high ground.

Most concrete programmatic elements needed by a modern-day Reconstructionist force have already been thrust into the mainstream by social movements and progressive elected officials: the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, a Green New Dealthe Women’s Health Protection Act, the PRO Act labor legislation, a blueprint for “A Revolution in US Foreign Policy,” and more.  With a central focus on voting rights and expansion of democracy in general, the framework of a Third Reconstruction can bind these together and project a vision in which the whole becomes more than the sum of its individual parts. (For a detailed treatment of a Third Reconstruction program and strategy, see Bob Wing, Introduction to “Toward Racial Justice and a Third Reconstruction.”)

Already the Third Reconstruction framework has moved from the work of historians and scholars into popular movements. Rev. William Barber, Co-Chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call For Moral Revival, used the Third Reconstruction concept in his book The Third Reconstruction: How a Moral Monday Movement Is Overcoming the Politics of Division and Fear. The Poor People’s Campaign works to popularize the idea in its ongoing work. An approach with deep roots in US history and centered in the Black experience, it is increasingly present in the wave of recent materials exploring the real history of US racism and the fight against it, including the widely discussed 1619 Project.

The call for a Third Reconstruction resonates in the layer of society most opposed to MAGA and most likely to drive progressive change in the next decade—the inter-related block and build tasks facing the Left. As both narrative and a guide to mass organizing and electoral action, the Third Reconstruction perspective holds great promise.

Max Elbaum is a member of the Convergence Magazine editorial board and the author of Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che (Verso Books, Third Edition, 2018), a history of the 1970s-‘80s ‘New Communist Movement’ in which he was an active participant. He is also a co-editor, with Linda Burnham and María Poblet, of Power Concedes Nothing: How Grassroots Organizing Wins Elections (OR Books, 2022).