For some in the US, the civil war never really ended. The violence seen in Virginia this weekend must serve as a wake-up call to progressives the world over
Monday 14 August 2017
The memoirs of Union general William Tecumseh Sherman make uncomfortable reading. In among the battle orders and the racist depiction of freed slaves, he switches occasionally to reminiscences of the post-war era, and amicable meetings with former Confederate enemies. Over cards and supper, he accepts their assurance that, if anybody ordered the massacre of all-black units during the fighting, it wasn’t them.
Sherman opposed the emancipation of the slaves, sabotaged his own troops efforts to free them and used slave labour on his fortifications. Yet he did one thing that, in light of the fascist march in Charlottesville, we can learn from today. He waged total war on his enemies. He ordered his troops to rip up miles of rail track, torch the farms of slave-owners who resisted and burn Atlanta. Then he set off for the sea, pledging famously, that since war was the remedy the south had chosen, “I say let us give them all they want.”
Nobody, seeing the militias parading with assault rifles and Kevlar this weekend, wants the US to descend into conflict. But the low-level political violence and severe cultural dislocations of the US today contain obvious parallels with the years before the American civil war.
As the historian Allan Nevins observed, by the late 1850s white America had become “two peoples”, whose radically different cultural identities could no longer be contained in one polity.
Then, the “two peoples” were shaped by rival economic models: industry and the free market versus sharecropping and slavery. But the concepts the Confederates took into battle with them have survived: states’ rights versus the federal government; white supremacy; the concept of an ethnically defined nation with a destiny nominated by God.
And they have not survived by accident. The statue of Confederate commander Robert E Lee, which Charlottesville’s city council voted to remove, is one of a string of monuments that have become icons of resistance for the rightwing cultural movement now energised by Donald Trump’s victory.
Nathan Bedford Forrest, the southern cavalry commander who massacred black soldiers and went on to found the Ku Klux Klan, is celebrated not only by an official statue in Memphis, but an unofficial gold one on private land in Nashville, surrounded by Confederate flags. Forrest was a military genius whose guerilla tactics are studied in US military academies to this day. But so was Wehrmacht Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. They were both fighting for genocide and racial supremacy.
So with Confederate flags mixed with swastikas on the streets of Charlottesville, it is not just the US but progressive people across the world who have to ask a tough question: what are we prepared to do to defeat the racist right?
They have declared cultural war on us. “This entire community is a very far-left community,” Jason Kessler, the organiser of the Unite the Right march, told the media, adding that Charlottesville’s residents had “absorbed these cultural Marxist principles advocated in college towns across the country, about blaming white people for everything.”