Monday, August 31, 2009

Failed Counterrevolutionaries?

Bonner, Robert E. “Proslavery Extremism Goes to War: The Counterrevolutionary Confederacy and Reactionary Militarism.” Modern Intellectual History, 6, 2 (2009), 261-285.

My copy of the August issue of MIH has finally arrived. I have never before been subscribed to a professional journal. Reading articles in bound form, and marking them up in this bound form is oddly exciting. No doubt it’ll soon wear off.

Bonner’s essay is an informative summary of the kinds of arguments being made by some very extreme pro-slavery publicists in the late 1850s, in the crucial winter of 1860, during, and finally after the war. I have virtually no historiographical context for this—although if I had pursued my old counter-revolutionary studies path I no doubt would. Bonner’s point seems none the less pretty clear. He wants to document the existence and nature of this particular militaristic, authoritarian and explicitly counterrevolutionary wing of Confederate thought. What is the point of all these descriptors? The point is that given the radicalizing power of the actual outbreak of hostilities, a hearing could be had for individuals who were not claiming a ‘purer’ American republic, but rather wanted to overturn the entire revolutionary project. Their theory of politics, in great conservative tradition, held that the state should be representative of society rather than an egalitarian or any other force for changing it. But these publicists (for obvious and bad reasons I don’t want to call them intellectuals) were not the mainstream. Indeed, for me the most interesting aspect of the material that Bonner presents is the way in which it highlights a difficulty fundamental to any attempt to bring race into politics. In the North American context, I think it is fair to say that race has been constructed as binary. In this way, a firm racial hierarchy can be established while none the less insisting on a kind of egalitarianism within ‘whiteness.’ There are obvious logic problems here. A more rigorous form of racism implies a biologically determined hierarchy articulated densely through society. This seems to me to be a fundamental tension in racist discourse, one that is liable to be found (perhaps it is, I don’t know) in all attempts to actualize racial hierarchy in the political realm. Indeed, I wonder if it might be argued that any hierarchical system not tending toward the destruction of all egalitarian impulses cannot properly be called racism. No egalitarianism at all, only the racially best in charge, articulated to the level of the individual. Given the way the 19th century was, this was obviously going to point toward militarism—in which, it should be pointed out, the same problematic of hierarchy and equality only repeats itself—and political authoritarianism. Bonner’s essay shows that indeed it did, and in the Confederacy was sharply at odds with what was otherwise a rights-based rhetoric. Bonner’s closing point, made for reasons of space rather obliquely, is that within the rich field of Confederate memory, most of these radical discourses have little place. What remains, though, as it were to haunt the memory of Confederate war dead, is a certain form of authoritarian militarism.

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