From the May 1977 issue of the Socialist Standard
In his closing words to the Author's Foreword of Foundations of Christianity (dateline Berlin, 1908), Karl Kautsky wrote:
. . . with the aid of the materialist conception of history . . . the study of the past, far from being mere dilettante antiquarianism, will become a powerful weapon in the struggles of the present, in order to hasten the attainment of a better future.
The future that the Socialist pioneers outlined is not brought any nearer by the widespread employment of Marxist terminology by self-styled socialist or communist governments in the world today. But the Kautsky statement remains sound, nevertheless. A clear understanding of social forces, by the working class, will help enormously in clearing away obstacles to the movement for world Socialism. As it is now, prejudices of many kinds keep workers of varied ethnic and cultural backgrounds apart. The Marxist admonition: "Workers of the world, unite!" is difficult to heed when workers do not understand the significance of the forces that divide them. It is an all-important duty of Socialists to spread knowledge and understanding on this subject. One of the latest examples, in America, of mass confusion is that phenomenal best-seller historical novel and TV extravaganza, Roots.
Now, this is not intended as a review of the book. Suffice it to say that Mr. Haley had set out on a prospecting adventure to unearth his personal roots—a tricky business at best, as we shall see, presently. But if the soundness of his genealogical research is questionable there is no doubt that he has found gold—a veritable gold mine. For, according to press reports, the book has earned him a cool 3 million bucks thus far, with no end to the profits in sight. And even if most who buy the book never actually read it (many blacks, even illiterates from backwater areas, seem to regard it as another Book of the Bible—their personal Gospel), an estimated 130 million people have seen at least a portion of the twelve hours of TV presentation and black Americans now know—or think they know—their roots. This fact, some writers believe, may serve as a spark to kindle a programme of black vengeance against "whitey." The "Establishment" (white and black) can go only so far of course in dispelling the mythology of roots. In this instance a lot of knowledge can be more dangerous than little. Consider:
The central hero, "Kunta Kinte," according to oral "historian" who gave him the "facts", was Haley's grandfather seven generations back. Now, "Kinte" may have been real and a direct ancestor of Haley's but it is a safe bet that not even Kinte's roots were all black, let alone Alex Haley's. For remote as Kinte's village may have been it was obviously not that remote and white traders, particularly slave traders, were frequent visitors to the area as long and longer ago than seven generations. But Haley, as do militant "Afro-Americans" generally, prefers to disown—or least not acknowledge—his "white" genes. (In that department, of course, he is no worse than "whites" who prefer not to contemplate their "black", or "yellow" or whatever ancestors). The fact is, that one need do is estimate the number of one's ancestors ten or fifteen generations back to burst bubble. Only through a practice of strict in-breeding through the generations could any of us, today, be considered "pure"! There can be no question about it: we all have the same roots. Migrations and invasions throughout history, have assured that.
But there is more to the confusion surrounding Haley's opus than one's genealogy. "Kunta Kinte", in the Haley chronicle, epitomizes the resistance which modern black-oriented historians prefer to believe black chattels gave their masters. That this was actually the case remains, at best, debatable. What is unquestionable, however, was the callous brutality of the slave trade. But even here is confusion because it is difficult, indeed, to surmount the morals of one's times. Trading in human chattels was legal (in varying degrees) for centuries and in pre-Civil War America some of the most highly respectable families were engaged in one or another facet of it. The morals of a society are established, generally, by the ruling class. Chattel Slavery was Big Business and, therefore, respectable. It was the Abolitionist, who was the non-conformist and trouble-maker, not the slave owner or slave trader. William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Philips have schools named after them, today, but it was a different matter when they were flaying Slavery and its beneficiaries in pre-Civil War United States of America.
And ponder, for a moment, on how few in our times see anything abhorrent about the relationships of wage-labour and capital, how few see it as a "higher" form of slavery. The chains are figurative but nonetheless real. Most of the population is bound for life to a class that owns the means and instruments of wealth production and distribution. An end to all slave relationships, including capitalism in all its forms, is possible but not without unification of the working class for the express purpose of establishing world socialism, immediately. And the dispelling of the mythology of roots will be a big help toward that goal.
Harmo, WSP Boston.