2020年4月17日 星期五

This week in 19th-century German communists

And a West African peanut stew to enjoy.
Gen. William Sherman of the Union Army, center, with his staff at Federal Fort No. 7 near Atlanta in 1864.George N. Barnard/The Library of Congress
Author Headshot

By Jamelle Bouie

Opinion Columnist

I spend a lot of time walking these days — my dog demands near-constant exercise — and I’ve been using the time to work my way through audiobooks.

I do a lot of reading, but much of that is for the column, and I can’t always get to the books, usually histories, that I want to read for pleasure. Audiobooks give me a chance to experience those works, and I find I retain most of what I take in.

That’s a long way of saying I have been listening to the audiobook of “Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life,” written by the historian Jonathan Sperber and read by Kevin Stillwell. There are many biographies of Marx, but this one takes a somewhat different approach, focusing on his life more than on his ideology, and making the case that we should treat Marx as the distinctly 19th-century thinker that he was and use caution when trying to bring his thought to bear on the problems of the 21st century.

But I’m not bringing this up to write about Marx. I’m bringing it up to write about one of his contemporaries, the Prussian Army officer turned devoted communist, August Willich. In the book, Willich features somewhat prominently as an opponent and antagonist of Marx’s during the late 1840s, a fellow émigré radical who saw Marx as too conservative, given the revolutionary ferment of the period.


Willich led a fascinating life. Born into nobility in 1810, he was orphaned as a child, adopted and raised by the influential liberal theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher and sent off to attain a military education. He served 19 years in the Prussian Army, rising to the rank of captain before resigning his commission in political protest. At this point a committed radical, he worked as a carpenter until the revolutions of 1848, when he volunteered to lead soldiers in the fighting that swept the German states of Baden and Palatinate. (His aide-de-camp, incidentally, was Friedrich Engels.)

The uprising failed and Willich fled to London, where he became enmeshed in revolutionary circles. It’s here that he came into conflict with Marx, a feud over ideology so fierce that at one point, Willich challenged Marx to a duel, which Marx wisely refused to fight.

After several years of conflict and discord in London-based communist circles, Willich emigrated to the United States, settling first in New York City and then moving to Cincinnati, with its large German population. There, he managed a German-language newspaper until 1861, when he joined the Union Army at the outbreak of the Confederate rebellion.

Willich, an experienced and capable soldier, was quickly promoted to the rank of major and then to colonel. His unit, the all-German-American 32nd Infantry Regiment, saw combat throughout the western theater of the war, with distinguished fighting at Rowlett’s Station in Kentucky and Shiloh in Tennessee. Willich was present at the battle of Chickamauga, the siege of Chattanooga and the Atlanta campaign with General William Tecumseh Sherman, where his troops cleared the way for the invasion of Georgia. By the end of the war, Willich — still a dedicated communist — had been promoted to major general, the highest-ranking communist to serve in the United States Armed Forces, that we know of.


You don’t have to have any sympathy for radical politics to see that Willich lived an incredible life. I had no idea he existed until this week, and now I want to know as much as I can about him and the many other German-born radicals who came to the United States in the aftermath of the revolutions of the 1840s. Stay tuned, I suppose, as I learn a little bit more about these fascinating men and women.

What I Wrote

Longtime readers know that I am very interested in the question of racial inequality, and this week I wrote a column on the racial disparities in Covid-19 fatalities, part of a larger series on inequality, that also works as a summary of my thinking on the nature of racial inequality in our society.

Today’s disparities of health flow directly from yesterday’s disparities of wealth and opportunity. That African-Americans are overrepresented in service-sector jobs reflects a history of racially segmented labor markets that kept them at the bottom of the economic ladder; that they are less likely to own their own homes reflects a history of stark housing discrimination, state-sanctioned and state-sponsored. And if black Americans are more likely to suffer the comorbidities that make Covid-19 more deadly, it’s because those ailments are tied to the segregation and concentrated poverty that still mark their communities.

I also speculated about the ideological reasons for conservative demands to reopen the economy, public health be damned.

If the electoral danger for the Republican Party is that voters will blame the president for high unemployment and mass death — a reasonable fear, given how Trump loudly denied the threat in the face of warnings from inside and outside his administration — then the ideological danger is that it undermines the ideological project that captured the state with President Ronald Reagan and is on the path to victory under Donald Trump.

And I had a long conversation with readers on Periscope. You can check it out here.

Currently Reading

Alyssa Battistoni on Vivian Gornick’s “The Romance of American Communism” in Dissent magazine.

Jane Mayer on Mitch McConnell in The New Yorker.

Zack Beauchamp on “illiberal democracy” and its American enablers at Vox.

Trevor Jackson on the sovereign power of the Federal Reserve, in Dissent magazine.

Jenn Pelly reviews Fiona Apple’s new record in Pitchfork magazine.



If you’re enjoying what you’re reading, please consider recommending it to friends. They can sign up here. If you want to share your thoughts on an item in this week’s newsletter or on the newsletter in general, please email me at jamelle-newsletter@nytimes.com.

Photo of the Week

Charlottesville, Va.Jamelle Bouie

My wife recently got a new camera — a Fujifilm XE-3 — and she let me play around with it one evening, since I was curious to see what I could coax out of it in the somewhat difficult lighting conditions of dusk. This was the result, a photo of the sky as the sun set on our street. It’s not a particularly interesting photo — sunsets are very cliché! — but I thought the colors were nice enough to share.

Now Eating: West African Groundnut Stew

For the past two weeks I have been cooking out of “Jubilee: Recipes From Two Centuries of African-American Cooking” by Toni Tipton-Martin, a journalist who writes about food and culture. It’s a wonderful cookbook, filled with fascinating history (James Hemings, brother of Sally and an enslaved chef at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, trained in Paris while Jefferson served as ambassador and essentially brought French-style cooking to American fine dining) and incredible recipes.

One of them is for an African groundnut stew. It is simple, affordable and filling. A few notes: You don’t have to break apart a whole chicken, but I recommend it. It’s a good skill to have, and you can save the scraps for stock. Should you decide to buy precut chicken, be sure to get a mix of thighs and breast meat. Also, the original recipe calls for adding the ingredients to the pot of quick stock and letting it simmer for 20 to 25 minutes. This, to my mind, would have left the “stew” more of a soup, so I took a different approach, inspired by Indian-style cooking.

In a separate pan, I heated three tablespoons of a neutral oil (I had grapeseed but canola works just as well) over medium heat. I added the spices and ginger and allowed them to cook for 30 seconds, to infuse the oil with the flavors. I then added the crushed, whole tomatoes, brought them to a simmer, and let the mixture cook down to a sauce for about 30 minutes, stirring as necessary. Once the liquid had largely evaporated and the oil was visible at the bottom of the pan, I added it to the pot along with the peanut butter mixture.

The reason for this approach is to blend and concentrate the flavors of the tomatoes and the spices, as well as reduce the amount of liquid. You’ll still simmer everything together, but the final result will have a consistency closer to a stew’s, in addition to more flavor. I served this with a basmati rice and spinach pilaf (again, inspired by Indian-style cooking), but plain rice works well, or even cornbread.


  • 1 (4-pound) chicken, cut into parts
  • 2 cups chopped onion
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 cup diced carrots
  • 2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
  • 6 whole black peppercorns
  • 1 bay leaf
  • ½ cup natural peanut butter (only peanuts, salt and oil)
  • 1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes, crushed by hand or in a blender
  • 1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
  • ½ teaspoon curry powder
  • ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • ½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (or less, if you don’t like heat)
  • ¼ cup dry white wine (optional; I didn’t feel like opening a bottle)


In a soup pot or Dutch oven, combine 1 quart water, the chicken, onion, garlic, carrots, salt, peppercorns and bay leaf. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, covered, until the chicken is cooked through, about 45 minutes.

(This is the point at which you can start my additional step, should you have the inclination. By the time the tomato sauce is finished, the broth will be finished as well and you can add everything together. If you’d rather follow the recipe as written, ignore this and continue on!)

Strain the broth and return the liquid to the pot. When cool enough to handle, separate the chicken meat from the skin and bones, bay leaf and other solids. Discard the skin and bones (or if you’re me, give the skin to your dog). Dice the chicken and set aside.

In a small bowl, stir about ½ cup of the hot broth into the peanut butter and mix until smooth. Return the peanut butter mixture to the pot along with the tomatoes, ginger, curry powder, cayenne and pepper flakes, and the white wine if desired. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer 20 minutes to allow the flavors to marry. Return the chicken to the pot and heat through. Taste, adding salt to adjust the seasoning. Serve with rice or bread of your choice.


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