This essay, on the historian Tyler Stovall and the idea of “white freedom”, was my Observer column this week. It was published 2 January 2022, under the headline “We talk a lot about freedom – but not enough about whose freedom is at stake”.
“For me, history is the record not only of how things change, but how people make things change, how they act individually and collectively to create a better world.” So wrote American historian Tyler Stovall about his approach to his craft. The echoes of historians such as EP Thompson and Eric Foner, Barbara Fields and Robin DG Kelley are unmistakable in his work.
Primarily a historian of France, Stovall’s work bears on many important present-day themes – the relationship between race and class, the tension between universalism and particularism, the contradictions of liberalism. Yet few people outside academia know of him and his death last month was almost unmarked in the mainstream media, a testament, perhaps, to the parochialism of our culture. Engaging with his work is a useful means of illuminating many contemporary debates.
Stovall’s early research in the 1980s looked at the making of working-class communities, especially in the “red belt” around Paris. Increasingly, though, his attention became drawn to some of the blind spots of French historiography, notably issues of race and imperialism. His studies of French colonialism and of colonial labour in France helped to challenge the idea of a colour-blind nation, not mired by the racism that beset the Anglo-Saxon world, and to unpick the ways in which the traditions of French universalism could be wielded to deny rights and dignity to those deemed not to belong.
Stovell’s final book, White Freedom, published last year, was in some ways the culmination of his life’s endeavour. Yet it is also as frustrating as it is enlightening, revealing both the significance of his work and also the confusions that infest contemporary thinking about race.
Modern ideas of freedom and liberty, Stovall observes, emerged alongside theories of race. While liberty and racism are usually seen as opposing claims, they are, in fact, he insists, inextricably linked, because ideals of freedom and liberty assumed the exclusion of non-whites. As such, they bear “the unmistakable stamp of whiteness and white racial ideology”.
Unquestionably, many thinkers who helped to shape modern ideas of freedom and liberty held racist views and supported exclusionary practices. John Locke, often regarded as the founding philosopher of liberalism, defended slavery and owned shares in a slave-trading company. Immanuel Kant, the towering Enlightenment figure, believed that “humanity is at its greatest perfection in the race of whites”. The French revolutionaries who proclaimed the Declaration of the Rights of Man denied those same rights to slaves until forced to do so by an insurrection in the colony of Saint Domingue. Abraham Lincoln launched the civil war that ended slavery in America but insisted also that he was not “in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races”.
For all this, Stovall’s own work shows that the struggle over the meaning of freedom was more complex than can be captured by a notion such as “white freedom”. The demand that certain groups be excluded from the benefits of freedom was provoked primarily not by racial concerns, but by political needs, especially by fears of social disorder. Throughout the 19th century, Stovall points out, France was torn between “the radical vision of democracy championed by… the sans-culottes of the French Revolution” and the liberal desire to “not endanger private property”. This struggle sparked the revolutions of 1830 and 1848 and the 1871 Paris Commune. The crushing of these revolutionary challenges led to the institutionalisation of more restricted notions of freedom.
The tension Stovall describes here goes back to the 17th century and forward to the 20th. In the famous Putney debates during the English civil war, Oliver Cromwell’s son-in-law Henry Ireton spoke for the officer class in insisting that “Liberty cannot be provided for in a general sense if property be preserved”. A century later, this question was at the heart of the struggle between the radicals and the moderates of the Enlightenment. In the 19th century, the liberal imperialist Thomas Macaulay argued, in response to Chartist demands for democracy, that “universal suffrage… is incompatible with property” and hence “with civilisation”.
The notion of race provided a means of casting inequalities as natural and inevitable. This became the justification for enslavement, for the brutal treatment of colonial subjects and for the denial of rights to non-white peoples in Europe and America. It was also the justification for suppressing working-class rights. In the 19th century, as Stovall acknowledges, the working class was viewed as a distinct and inferior race. The French Christian socialist Philippe Buchez wondered how “within a population such as ours, races may form, so miserable, inferior and bastardised that they may be classed as below the most inferior savage races, for their inferiority is sometimes beyond cure?” He was talking not of Africans or Asians but of the working class and the rural poor of France.
Racial divisions became also a means of dismantling challenges to the ruling order by persuading white workers that their interests lay in their “whiteness”, not in their status as workers. In the American south, for instance, “Jim Crow” laws, which imposed apartheid-style segregation, were mainly enforced at the turn of the 20th century in response to the “Fusion” movements, which brought together black workers and poor white farmers, to challenge the established order and, in North Carolina, win power. The Democrats, the ousted ruling party, launched a violent “white supremacy campaign” to rupture the coalition, win white working-class support for treating blacks as outcasts and regain political control.
This complex relationship between liberties, race, class and whiteness is ill-served by a concept such as “white freedom”. Nor is this just an issue about history. “Whiteness” has become an idea fetishised today both by racists and by many anti-racists, the one claiming that all white people have a common set of interests, the other reframing racism as “white privilege”. In doing so, both, in different ways, obscure the political and structural reasons for racism, on the one hand, and the social problems facing the working class, on the other, making it more difficult to challenge either.
Tyler Stovall’s work is important in illuminating previously ignored areas of class, race and colonialism and should be better known and cherished. It should also be challenged and questioned, especially the arguments about “white freedom”. Intellectual legacies, like freedoms, are always contested.