In Defense of Endangered History

A Call to Protect and Reflect on Victor Arnautoff’s 1936 George Washington Murals

Proposed August 15, 2019, Adopted August 29, 2019

The virulent Trump Administration has forced us to once again confront the legacy and enduring power of racism in US society. At the same time, Trumpist politics, in their very extremity, have spurred anti-racist consciousness and organizing across the USA, from calls to abolish ICE to campaigns to tear down the monuments erected to Confederate slaveholders. Similarly, it has been under Trump that calls for reparations to the descendants of slaves have again become topics of broad public discussion, while Congress members and presidential candidates openly avow democratic socialist platforms. Indeed, it may be the case that the very wretchedness of Trump’s billionaire bigotry has helped to lay the basis for a massive growth of the US Left. 

This popular backlash to Trump is a reminder that confronting the cruelty of racist plutocracy (past and present) can be a very productive thing, provoking people to think critically and to take up resistance against wrongs that they can no longer ignore. Forced by Trump to reckon with overt expressions of supremacist domination, more Americans are coming to see that the USA has never been an inclusive model for equity, morality, or opportunity, and that its wealth has derived in large part from the most brutal—and racist—forms of land-grabbing and labor exploitation imaginable—what Marx once referred to as the “so-called primitive accumulation” of capital. (1)

The recognition, however, that “[c]apitalism has created classes of racialized human beings, whose persons and work are [disproportionately] devalued and subject to expropriation,” is alone insufficient for overthrowing racist oppression and realizing universal emancipation from all economic and identitarian fetters.(2) Anti-racism, while crucial, is not enough. Indeed the prioritization of ethnic or “racial” identity as the bedrock of political subjectivity, and the corollary assumption of monolithic racial “experience” that is unintelligible to any but those who share a common ancestry, threaten to block the path to abolishing racism as a tool for economic exploitation. Such proprietary, possessive notions of “race” and “culture” are more or less easily rendered by neoliberal individualism, cynically dividing working-class and other oppressed people, all of whom suffer under capitalism’s degrading and alienating logic. Overthrowing the racist system as such demands the unification of diverse groups across historically imposed (and scientifically fallacious) lines of “race,” properly understood as an ideological tool. 

Only a socialist/communist framework, anti-racist but also class-conscious, holds the potential to transform the system writ large. This radical tradition, which informs Socialism and Democracy, goes far beyond the hegemonic neoliberal response to racial inequities. Within that framework, people of color, women, and other identities fight to exercise their “fair share” of power within institutions that remain destructive and hierarchical, whether the corporation, the court, the US Department of Defense, the Federal Reserve, the IMF, etc., etc. (3)

Against such neoliberal “antiracism,” the socialist/communist tradition crucially relies on two axioms. First, that, in the face of a system that threatens us all, it is both possible and necessary for human beings, despite the baggage and dirt of history, to act in solidarity and comradeship with one another across lines of nationality and “race,” as well as of gender and sexual orientation. Second, that it is only by critically and collectively confronting the true nature of past history—with all its horrors but also its hopes—that we can come to grasp the world and thereby change it, radically and for the better. The fight against capitalism demands critical understanding of oppression whose burden humanity collectively, if unequally, bears.

It is in this context that the recent attacks on the historic New Deal murals painted by Victor Arnautoff, at George Washington High School in San Francisco, are particularly disturbing.

In June the San Francisco Board of Education embarked on a project that would hide a powerful indictment of the underside of American history, while simultaneously eliminating an invaluable expression of anti-racist resistance. Its unanimous vote to permanently paint or panel over Arnautoff’s mural series represented a double outrage: both a brutal act of paternalistic censorship and also an erasure of radical history (not to mention an added cost to taxpayers in yet another city burdened by extreme income inequality and homelessness). Although—after much public debate and pushback—the Board has now voted (4 to 3) to “Hide but not destroy” the historic murals, the Board’s actions remain worrisome. (4) In effect, by highlighting some students’ understandable discomfort, and motivated by a fear of “triggering” the traumatized, the Board of Education moved to block a path towards understanding how that trauma was generated in the first place.

Thus, in a society where critical depictions of the “Founding Fathers” remain all too rare, school leaders have elected to hide from view an artifact that vividly exposes George Washington as a slave-owner and genocidal settler—in the name “reparations.” (5) Arnautoff himself, meanwhile, was neither slave-owner, nor colonial conqueror, but a Russian émigré and communist (later targeted by McCarthyism) who called himself “a critic of society,” studied under Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, and put the ever-glorified first president in his sights. It must be pointed out that Arnautoff’s Washington murals depict human beings of various ethnicities at work—enslaved, but also presumably indentured or waged. (In the most publicized panel, by contrast, Washington stands rigid, his arm extended implacably in a gesture of command.) Furthermore, David Bacon argues, Arnautoff did not render indigenous Americans as passive victims but rather “shows native people as active resisters to colonization, in their war-dress, ready to battle the settlers. Such resistance was the key to their survival.” (6)

Crucially, therefore, the Board’s actions threaten to erase from public discourse both a history of colonization and the legacy of resistance left to us by those socialists and communists—from all ethnic or cultural backgrounds—who through the 19th and 20th centuries have fought in an internationalist spirit against racism and empire. Even worse, the legacy of class-conscious anti-racism and solidarity is being conflated with Eurocentrism and white supremacy. It is as if Arnautoff’s murals are no different from those monuments to the Southern Confederacy; as if the former’s critique of slavery is no different than the latter’s celebration of it.

Whatever the merits of its many features—and there is certainly room for debate about and critique of the work itself—the murals of Victor Arnautoff represent a much-needed example of anti-racist solidarity in and through art. Representing the human horror that underlies Washington’s mythic glory, these endangered murals hold out the promise that the historical construct of “race” can be identified, analyzed, and thereby transcended. Disappointingly, local educators and mural advocates have apparently failed to help students see the value of this unique artwork, leading us to a dangerous impasse where activists identifying with the “Old Left” are being brought into sharp conflict—rather than productive dialogue—with newer and younger “progressive” forces.

Unfortunate as this present state of affairs is, however, we can join the Reverends Arnold Townsend and Amos Brown, California NAACP leaders, and GWHS alumnus Danny Glover, in insisting that covering up such an artwork does nothing to uproot the historical violence that it depicts. (7) Artist Dewey Crumpler, employed in the 1960s at the insistence of the Black Panther Party to extend the mural project, also opposes the murals’ destruction, calling instead for the San Francisco Board of Education to “deal with the students’ concerns” more creatively, perhaps through the integration of “a 21st-century kiosk or a screen that tells the story, to help that mural become a tool for teaching.(8)

A new progressive surge is clearly in the making in this country, stirred to rage in the face of Trumpist reaction. Even the troubling rebellion of those seeking to destroy the Arnautoff murals may yet be a sign of something positive: people across this country are seeking tangible ways to tear down the racism, manifest and latent, that distorts our world. To be sure, it is the responsibility of socialists and communists to respectfully listen and to engage youth and others who are stepping into these new sites of activism and revolt—including those in and around GWHS itself. While doing so, however, we must not capitulate to a white-washing of history that, in seeking to attack white supremacy, blots the color of international working-class solidarity—red—from view entirely.

To be sure, we must build a fuller, more sensitive historical education around this unique artwork. Towards this end, Socialism and Democracy will in the weeks ahead invite contributions for a print symposium on this mural and its controversy, seeking to make the most of a teachable moment. It is clear that any such project requires listening to and respectfully engaging the views of students and community members on the ground. But right now it also means protecting access to this artwork, as a catalyst for collective reflection.  

(1) Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume One, trans. Ben Fowkes (Penguin, 1976), p. 874.

 (2) Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya, and Nancy Fraser, “Notes for a Feminist Manifesto,” New Left Review 114 (2018), p. 129. 

(3)  See Arruzza, Bhattacharya, and Fraser, “Notes for a Feminist Manifesto,” p. 129, on the concept of “equal-opportunity domination.”

(4) Jill Tucker, “SF school board reverses course, decides to save controversial mural,” 13 August 2019, San Francisco Chronicle; Carol Pogash, “San Francisco School Board May Save Controversial George Washington Mural,” New York Times, 10 August 2019.

(5) Bari Weiss, “San Francisco Spends $600,000 to Erase History,” New York Times, 30 June 2019.

(6)  David Bacon, “The Hidden History of the Arnautoff Mural,” The Stanbury Forum, 28 June 2019.

(7) Michael Cabanatuan, “Black leaders in SF support saving controversial George Washington High School mural,” San Francisco Chronicle, 7 August 2019. 

(8)  Alex Lash, “For SF Muralist Dewey Crumpler, the Controversial Past is Present,” The Frisc, 19 April 2019.