Dr. Gerald Horne, Moores Professor of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston, is one of the most original and prolific scholars working today in his field. He has created within the past few years multiple volumes that critically re-examine America’s foundation and the connection of slavery to the colonial striving for independence. His latest volume is The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism: The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, and Capitalism in 17th Century North America and the Caribbean.
Horne sees this history as a solution to contemporary mysteries, writing “The seeds of the fiasco of an election in November 2016 in the United States, where the less affluent of European descent, including more than half of the women of this group, found their tribune in a vulgar billionaire, has roots in the cross-class coalition that spearheaded colonial settlement in the seventeenth century at the expense of the indigenous and enslaved Africans.”
I spoke with Horne recently about his work. This discussion has been edited for clarity and length.
1/ AS: Dr. Horne, you have now written three volumes that challenge the dominant view of the American revolution as a progressive step forward in human affairs. What are some issues that have revealed themselves that you did not recognize until you began the work?
GH: When you work your way back through history, you come to realizations and recognitions that you might not have suspected. For example, in the 17th century, I suggest that this acceleration of what might be called “white identity politics” or the construction of whiteness has roots in earlier centuries. As I have worked backward, I realized that this project, the construction of whiteness, has roots further and further back in earlier centuries and anticipate that at some point I will say it goes back to the 1400s.
Secondly, I think it is well past time for progressive people, particularly those who consider themselves to be radical, to take a critical eye to the tragic events that unfolded when the European invasion commenced post-1492 and the genocide that befell the indigenous population and the mass enslavement that ensnared the Africans. I think that failure to look more critically at that process and seeking to rationalize it, saying ‘Well, at the end of the day, post-1776 this republic emerged which was a great leap forward for humanity’, in some ways serves to rationalize and justify genocide and mass-enslavement.
And if you can rationalize genocide and mass-enslavement, that just provides a fertile womb for all manner of opportunism. And in some ways this can lead directly to the November 2016 election of a US president and the horrors that have unfolded since that date.
2/ AS: Where do you think the idea that American independence as a ‘bourgeois democratic revolution’ was a step forward for mankind came from?
GH: First, it seems to me that you can call these events a ‘bourgeois democratic revolution’ as long as you have a major caveat, which is that, if this was a ‘bourgeois democratic revolution’, let’s not have any more! Let that be the last one!
If you are going to use that term then critique that term. And I would say that is particularly true in the United States, which is the seed bed of critiques of revolutions that have happened worldwide since 1776. There’s an entire industry with people making good livings criticizing every revolution since 1776, sometimes in a one-sided manner, be it the French revolution, the Cuban revolution, the Russian revolution, etc.
That shows me folks in the United States are capable of doing a multi-sided critique of revolutions except 1776, where they come to this absurd conclusion that ‘Oh, it went well, except, you know, the genocide and mass enslavement.’ It reminds me of the MOVE bombing in Philadelphia when the mayor said afterwards “Well, everything went fine except we destroyed the neighborhood.”
What kind of thinking is that?
Part of the problem is that until the anti-Jim Crow movement took flight, many Black historians in particular were barred from the archives or even were barred from graduate school and that handicapped the ability of those who might be most disposed to take a critical look at history.
Now obviously it doesn’t speak well for those that did have access to the archives that they could not come to this conclusion because, as I’ve been saying for some years, this is not a difficult case to make. This was not rocket science coming to these conclusions!
What was created was an apartheid state. It was like going to South Africans and saying ‘Well, the Nationalist Party, they did well for the Afrikaner people, it was a whole affirmative action program for the Afrikaners that lifted many out of poverty and that served as a precursor for what might happen to the Africans under nationalist party rule.’ If you took that position, people would laugh you out of court!
But basically that’s what has happened in North America, the ability of the 1776 regime to take land from Native Americans and redistribute it to European migrants and lift them out of poverty, I guess that serves as a template for bettering the lives of Native Americans.
3/ AS: You’ve brought to mind a prominent question, is it possible for a settler colonial society to develop into a fascist one given the fact that fascism in its original formulation was open about taking inspiration from American settler colonialism?
GH: The New Yorker did a piece a few weeks ago covering the literature recently published that makes such a point. What I find remarkable is that outlets like the New Yorker, Madeline Albright, former Secretary of State under Bill Clinton who has written her book Fascism: A Warning, Cass Sunstein, former Obama administration official and Harvard Law professor, with his collection Can It Happen Here?, Timothy Snyder, the virulently anticommunist historian at Yale has two books out that sound the alarm about what is happening in the United States, Michael Kinsley, married to an heir of the Microsoft fortune, was one of the first people to sound the alarm about Trump as fascist.
Now these are all bourgeois commentators, some of them from the 1%. Whereas from my friends and colleagues on the Left I hear a kind of diminishing of what happened in November 2016. You hear people saying ‘Well, some of these people who voted for Trump, they voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012,’ which presents sort of an optimistic viewpoint of what happened and what can happen. Then you have some of our friends saying ‘Well, you know, the median or average income of thee Trump voter was $72,000 and that doesn’t sound like the working class to me.’
In any case, it seems there’s this effort to diminish the import of what’s happening while the bourgeois analysts are running around with their hair on fire. And I have to say that, as so often happens in this settler regime, the bourgeois elements have the better argument.
We should be very much alarmed and concerned about these fascist trends that are erupting in this country.