The New York Times’ 1619 Project is an ambitious attempt to rewrite American history as defined by slavery and racism. Yet it cherry-picks historic events and offers questionable interpretations. It also offers a deeply parochial view that holds American history as the measure of all things.
Yes, slavery is a dark stain on American history, but our ideals always stood in direct contradiction to it. Slavery existed everywhere in the world at the time of our country’s founding, and once the institution was grandfathered into the American South, getting rid of it was not an easy undertaking.
To understand what real “founded on slavery” is like, look at the Soviet Union. If America was created for capitalism and liberty, the USSR’s founding idea was state control, of which slavery—or serfdom, as it is known in Russian context—was the inevitable result.
Russian Serfdom Was a Centuries’ Old Institution
In Russia, the institution of serfdom dates back to the 12th century. Under serfdom (Russian krepostnoe pravo), peasants were “attached” to a parcel of land, and prohibited from leaving that land without permission. Historians believe the institution was fully formed by the middle of the 17th century, when household slaves were converted into serfs of the estate, and landlords were granted the right of a lifelong search for any runaways.
Although this was technically prohibited, serfs were bought and sold as chattel. Throughout centuries, serfdom became accepted as a norm by all strata of Russian society. Large-scale rebellions did take place, but they were led by free Cossacks.
As the ideas of the Enlightenment gained foothold among the Russian elites, serfdom was challenged on moral grounds. Practical considerations—notably military readiness, economic development, and a fear of uprisings—also played into the eventual emancipation. Krepostnoe pravo was formally abolished by Tzar Alexander II in 1861, around the time of abolition in America. The census of 1857, taken on the eve of abolition, recorded 63 million Russians, out of whom 23 million were privately owned serfs, and another 29 million serfs owned by the state. The state-owned serfs were emancipated in 1866.
A Period of Gradual Emancipation
The 1861 law granted the former serfs civil rights, but economic transition proved to be complicated. The peasants were allotted land, but it was bought with government loans that had to be repaid in 49 years. The land was managed not by individual peasants, but by the peasant community, or mir.
Although the Russian economy picked up after the emancipation, on the eve of World War I the rate of development was lower than that of the European Great Powers and the United States. The iconic U.S. landscape of the mid- and late 19th century is the Mississippi steamboat — modern, confident, and aspirational.
The single most recognized painting of Russian landscape post-emancipation is Ilya Repin’s “Barge Haulers on the Volga.” It shows a group of 11 destitute men dragging a barge on the bank of the Volga River. Liberally minded Russians like to point to the contrast between the two, suggesting different national destinies.
Nonetheless, some progress was made with Russian peasantry, particularly following the 1906 agrarian reforms of Pyotr Stolypin. Stolypin’s “wager on the strong and sober” permitted individual peasants to buy parcels of land on credit, and to pass on this land to descendants. By 1913, 10 percent of the land was converted into private farms and 20 percent of peasants opted to be family farmers. A new class of the relatively well-off, property-owning farmers, or kulaks, emerged.
For the rest, the land question was still looming. Vladimir Lenin’s promise to turn over the land to peasants propelled the Bolsheviks in power in 1917.
From Emancipation Back to Slavery
Socialism is defined by state ownership of the means of production. Lenin’s plan to liquidate the kulaks as a class to prevent development of capitalism was fully realized by Joseph Stalin.
In November 1929, in conjunction with his first five-year plan, Stalin published “The Year of Great Break,” an article signaling the turn towards consolidation of property into government possession. Small, private farms had to be turned into government-run collective farms, work equipment and livestock surrendered.
Officially billed as dekulakization, or liquidation of the kulak class, and cloaked in Marxist rhetoric, the policy’s enemy was vaguely defined. Because defining who was a kulak was left up to the local officials who had to fill the quotas, middle-income farmers were also frequently targeted. This strategy allowed Stalin to then claim that his executioners were “dizzy with success,” and tell them to cool it.
A wave of localized anti-collectivization protests swept through the country: 1300 took place in 1929 alone. However, those were all disjointed efforts. In Kazakhstan, the protests were at times supported even by the local Communist Party officials. In the North Caucasus and some regions of Ukrainian SSR, the Red Army was called up to quell the uprisings.
An estimated 700-800 thousand farmers took part in the localized actions. Those who resisted collectivization were seized and exiled to gulags, or sometimes simply dropped off in the Siberian wilderness. The number of the exiled is estimated to be 1.4 million, many of whom died in labor camps or during transport.
The State-Driven Slavery of Collectivism
In the 1930s, the USSR relied on the sale of agricultural products abroad to finance industrialization of its cities. Because at the time of dekulakization the price of grain plummeted worldwide, Stalin sent special commissions to squeeze grain out of the newly collectivized peasants to make up for the losses.
Stalin’s henchmen frequently took everything, including some of the seeds reserved for sowing in spring, creating a feedback of poor harvests. The ensuring man-made famine that devastated the Soviet countryside in the winter of 1932-33 is commonly known by Ukrainian moniker Holodomor. It killed an estimated 5 million people in Ukraine, North Caucasus, Kazakhstan, and Central Russia.
Americans are generally familiar with Holodomor in the context of Ukrainian history because about half of those who perished were Ukrainians, and because Ukrainians, very vocally, made it into a cry for independence. But the man-made starvation also turned ethnic Kazakhs a minority in the Kazakh SSR, their numbers declining from 60 percent to 38 percent of the population.
As a wave of starving farmers entered Soviet cities in search of work and bread, the state sought to control migration. In December 1932, the Soviet Union introduced internal passports and propiska. Propiska is a place of residency registration with local militsia, or police, as inscribed in the passport. Farmers were denied the passports they needed to move to cities and find work. Thus, krepostnoe pravo was fully reinstituted in the Soviet Union.
Marxism Means Government Control of Your Labor
Peasants gradually learned to accept their lot. The age-old communal mindset of mir laid a blueprint for acceptance. Only in 1974 were the farmers allowed to own their passports, but by then the government was firmly in control of the means of production. Soviet people were compelled to work for the state, although virtually everyone moonlighted on the side, using the government when possible.
Sadly, propiska remains a reality in Russia. Moscow police have revealed that many of those arrested during the protests this summer are not, according to the official records, residents of the cities. But of course they are the same Muscovites as everyone else, living, working, and attending school there. They didn’t fly into the capital from Vladivostok and Astakhan for demonstrations. They simply lack propiska.
Of course, collectivization wasn’t the only instances of forced labor in the USSR. Gulags are an obvious example, and more generally, in the absence of a free market on which to sell one’s labor, and products of labor, all talk about freedom is moot.
However, collectivization vividly illustrates what “founded on slavery” means. Marxist ideology presupposed government control; it could not tolerate the prosperous, independent class of liberated serfs, so the USSR re-enslaved them, and it did so using the most sadistic measures at its disposal, included ethnic cleansing.
The United States was founded on the ideas of the Enlightenment that were antithetical to slavery. The peculiar institution is gone, swept away by capitalism and liberty. It is not so for millions across the world still today.