Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 12, 2013

Robert Fogel, co-author of “Time on the Cross”, dead at 86

Filed under: slavery,transition debate — louisproyect @ 12:41 pm

Robert Fogel

Today the NY Times reported on the death of economist Robert Fogel at the age of 86. He is best known for his collaboration with Stanley Engerman on “Time on the Cross”, a book described by the Times:

They contended that slavery had not been, as widely portrayed, an inefficient system destined for collapse, with slaves living in virtual concentration camps and worked to death.

Rather, after studying medical records, cotton yields and other data, the authors argued that slavery had been highly efficient in utilizing economies of scale and that plantation owners had regarded workers as economic assets whom they were inclined to treat at least as well as livestock. This tended to limit exploitation, Professor Fogel and his colleague found, declaring, in fact, that slave life in the South was generally better than that of industrial workers in the North.

An intellectual firestorm resulted. Some critics accused Professor Fogel, who was married to an African-American woman, of being an apologist for slavery, though he and Professor Engerman had been explicit in acknowledging that slaves had been exploited in ways not captured by statistical data.

In a series of posts on Charles Post’s “political Marxism” take on the American civil war written 10 years ago, I dealt with the Engerman-Fogel thesis as well as Eugene Genovese’s analysis that slavery was a pre-capitalist social relation. Post took great pains to distinguish himself from Genovese both for theoretical reasons as well as a need to draw a clear line with a theory that was as controversial as Engerman-Fogel in its own way. Genovese had what might be described as a paternalistic take on slavery, finding it if not exactly cozy at least systematically coherent in its own way. Ironically, despite the clash between the two approaches, Engerman and Genovese had more in common than initially meets the eye. Indeed, as I point out in the original article I posted, Genovese once stated that his own work could “absorb” that of Engerman and Fogel’s.

 Engerman and Fogel

Written on August 23, 2003 as part of a series of articles in reply to Charles Post

A couple of months ago when the Marxism list was debating whether chattel slavery was capitalist, Rakesh Bhandari called my attention to an article by Charles Post in the July 2003 Journal of Agrarian Change that applied the Brenner thesis to the “peculiar institution” and its abolition. I want to thank Rakesh for that reference and give credit to him as one of the most well informed people on the left in such matters. Although Rakesh is one of the legions of people I have offended in the past, I am glad that he has forgiven me to the extent that I can depend on him for scholarly references and insight.

Before proceeding to a discussion of the article itself (or to be more exact, issues raised by the article), it would be useful to provide some background on the Brenner thesis, which is essentially an attempt to explain the origins of capitalism in changed property relations in the English countryside beginning in the late middle ages as feudal tribute gave way to tenant farming based on rent.

Virtually everybody, Brenner included, sees his thesis as an outgrowth of the work of Maurice Dobb, who was part of the CP school of historians in Great Britain along with Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm and other luminaries. Shortly after Dobb came out with his groundbreaking “Studies in the Development of Capitalism” in 1947, Paul Sweezy wrote a critical review in Science and Society that led to the famous Dobb-Sweezy debate (sometimes called “the transition debate”) that pitted contrary interpretations of capitalist origins against each other. Dobb placed great weight on changes in the English countryside such as the Enclosure Acts, while Sweezy looked to urban trade in cities such as Flanders and Genoa.

Sweezy tended to rely a lot on Henri Pirenne, the French historian who emphasized the importance of Mediterranean trade routes in the end of feudalism. Although much of Pirenne’s research has come under attack in recent years, there was something that Paul Sweezy was putting his finger on and that the “agrarian capitalism” current might have trouble explaining–namely the underlying economic factors that drove the Enclosure Acts and the transformation of class relations in the English countryside forward. It does not seem to make a lot of sense that landlords would force such potentially violent changes on the peasantry without good reasons.

If you look at them in the context of the kind of “primitive accumulation” taking place in Chiapas and elsewhere today, they begin to make sense. English landlords were following the imperatives of international trade just as multinational corporations in Mexico are today. When wool became profitable, it made economic sense to throw peasants off the land and turn their land into grazing pasture. Despite the fact that A.L. Morton was a member in good standing of the CP historian’s school in Great Britain, he had no trouble pointing that out:

The first and most important field that merchant capital found for its operations in England was the wool trade. From quite early times wool was exported from this country to be woven in Ghent, Bruges, Ypres and other towns in Flanders. By the thirteenth century this trade had grown to large proportions, easily exceeding in bulk and value all other exports combined. In some respects England assumed a position with regard to Flanders comparable to that of Australia and the West Riding today. (People’s History of England, p. 73)

Although it would be a mistake to infer too much from this, it is noteworthy that Dobb’s book contains a scant 5 references to slavery in the index and 2 of them refer to the medieval era or earlier. Just three years prior to the publication of Dobb’s book, another important book appeared. Originally a doctoral dissertation, Eric Williams’ “Capitalism and Slavery” argued that without slavery British capitalism would have never triumphed. Much of the work is a detailed analysis of how the rising bourgeoisie in cities like Liverpool owed their fortunes to the slave trade or plantations operated by slave labor. This dimension is utterly lacking in Dobb’s book. For example, there is no reference to Jamaica whatsoever in the index. That Eric Williams was a black Trinidadian partially explains his sensitivity to the role of slaves in Great Britain’s take-off.

Also keep in mind the indirect influence of Trotskyism on Eric Williams. In Kent Worcester’s biography of CLR James, we learn that the Trotskyist theorist served as a tutor to Williams at Oxford. It seems that James read both drafts of Williams’s dissertation and had a significant role in formulating the book’s primary thesis, namely that sugar plantations, rum and slavery trade helped to catapult Great Britain into world domination at the expense of the African peoples in the Diaspora. Without the underdevelopment of Jamaica, Trinidad, etc., capitalist development in Great Britain would not have had the supercharged character that it did.

Although I will have more to say on this in subsequent posts, it appears to me that one of the central failings of the Dobb-Brenner approach is that it cannot account for what Trotsky characterized as combined and uneven development. The tendency to define fixed, mutually exclusive stages of socio-economic development is very much a hallmark of CP intellectual traditions. Although the British CP historians represent the very best example of this, they were never able to escape a tendency toward “stagism”.

Post’s article also implicitly poses the question whether the Civil War was a “bourgeois revolution”. Although a staple of Marxist theory, this notion has been challenged in recent years by “revisionist” historians, including Francois Furet, who found evidence of powerful affinities between the gentry and the bourgeoisie in the French revolution. George Comninel, a Socialist Register editor, was convinced sufficiently by their findings to synthesize them with a Marxist interpretation in “Rethinking the French Revolution”. Although he worries that these new findings might undermine fundamental Marxist precepts about the bourgeois-democratic revolution, I am convinced that Marx himself was drawing away from them as early as 1852 when he observed the failure of the German bourgeoisie to take a resolute stand against the Junkers planter-aristocracy. I will foreshadow the conclusion of these series of posts by stating now that the same exact analysis can be applied to the American Civil War and its aftermath.

Turning now to Post’s article, we learn that it is focused on “economic development” and more particularly whether slavery hindered or fostered such a thing. I view this as a undialectical approach, especially if it is seen as dealing with an essentially “Southern” problem. One of the major weaknesses of the Brenner thesis is its refusal to see capitalism as a system that crosses national or even sectional boundaries. If it is seen as a “mode of production” applied exclusively to a regional or national economy, then it will always produce the expected self-vindicating results. In other words, there was capitalism in New England but none in Mississippi; or, in Great Britain but not in Jamaica. However, if one sees these various forms of exploitation as distinct but interrelated links in a great chain, then the contradiction is resolved.

Post considers two of the most prominent approaches to the slavery question within this framework and finds them lacking in comparison to the Brenner thesis, which prioritizes “class relations”. The first approach views the Southern plantation as an essentially capitalist phenomenon. The work most identified in the scholarly world with this approach is Stanley Engerman and Robert Fogel’s “Time on the Cross”, a ‘cliometric’ attempt to demonstrate the dynamism and profitability of the slave system. The second approach is embodied in the writings of Eugene Genovese who defended the thesis that the Southern planters were a precapitalist class that had much in common with their wasteful and extravagant feudal counterparts in Europe centuries earlier.

For Post, the major flaw of Engerman-Fogel is that it fails to conform to Marxist theories on surplus value extraction–no surprise given the bourgeois microeconomic orientation of the authors. (Fogel, who went on to win a Nobel Prize, shared a CPUSA past with Genovese. He was editor of a party journal titled “New Foundations” that was published in the 1950s. Eventually both would break with Marxism, Fogel adopting neoclassical economics of the sort that was prevalent at the University of Chicago, where he taught. Genovese today is an outspoken reactionary. It appears that in the course of writing about the Southern bourbons, he became enamored of their traditional values. Of course, between the anti-capitalism of a Southern planter and that of the Communist Party there is a vast gulf.)

Post writes:

A careful examination of Fogel and Engerman and other proponents of the ‘planter capitalist’ model’s description of the plantation labour process actually contradicts their claim that the planters responded to competitive market imperatives in the same way as capitalists. The labour process under slavery was organized to maximize the use of human labour in large, coordinated groups under the continual supervision of masters, overseers and drivers. As we shall see, the tools slaves used were simple and virtually unchanged. Even with a detailed division of tasks in planting and cultivation, such a labour process left the masters few options to increase output per slave. Planters could either increase the pace of work through punishments or rewards, increase the amount of acreage each slave or slave-gang cultivated, increase the number of slaves working by tapping the capacities to work of female and juvenile slaves, or move the plantation to more fertile soil.

In the section on Genovese, we discover that his model of slavery “derived from Weber” and that it prevented him from “developing a consistent explanation of how slavery’s social property relations block relatively continuous labour-saving technical change.” I, for one, was rather surprised to see Genovese described in such terms because he described himself as strongly influenced by Maurice Dobb in “The World the Slaveholders Made”. There Genovese makes the case for “seigneuralism”, a term that was meant to capture the archaic character of the Southern plantation system but that relieved him from proving that this super-exploitative, commodity-producing system was “feudal”, a static system based on the creation of use-values. He writes:

Capitalism is here defined as the mode of production characterized by wage labor and the separation of the labor force from the means of production–that is, as the mode of production in which labor power itself has become a commodity… Dobb, in Studies in the Development of Capitalism, has brilliantly demonstrated the value of these definitions, and we need not pursue the matter here beyond one point of special relevance to the question of slavery. The great value of this viewpoint lies in its focus on human relationships inherent in labor systems. As such, it should be understood to transcend mere economic categories and to define each mode of production as a social rather than as a narrowly economic system.

For all of the seeming polarities between Engerman-Fogel and Genovese, there were underlying affinities that Post ignores. I would suggest that these affinities are symptomatic of an underlying malaise in a scholarship that focuses on the ruling class, whether it is ‘seigneurial’ or capitalist.

The first evidence of such an affinity is a 1975 collection titled “Race and Slavery in the Western Hemisphere” that was co-edited by Engerman and Genovese and that contained presentations given at the U. of Rochester in 1972 co-organized by the two professors. This is not just a question of genial scholarly cooperation in a joint project involving disparate interpretations. In Genovese’s concluding remarks to the conference, he leaves open the possibility that his own interpretation could “absorb” the work of Engerman-Fogel despite some reservations about their data on profitability.

Indeed, by 1983 Stanley Engerman and Eugene Genovese found themselves co-authoring a commentary on an article dealing with Brazilian slavery in “The Hispanic American Historical Review”. Apparently, the absorption process alluded to in 1972 had been consummated.

Their piece has all the familiar earmarks of their prior work. In examining the slave economy of Minas Gerais in late 18th century Brazil, they pose coldly clinical questions such as “What was the size of the units on which slaves worked”; “What would the price schedule of slaves looked like if Brazilian slavery had had the characteristics of Minas Gerais”, etc. In answering these questions, Engerman and Genovese allege that economic “subsystems” such as slavery can crop up in isolation from the market sector. If there were differences between the two by the early 1980s, none can be discerned in this article.

I now want to turn my attention to an aspect of Engerman-Fogel and Genovese that is ignored in Post’s article: the implicit racism of their analysis. While it is understandable that he needed to focus on the question of “economic development” for the purpose of his argument, it is in the interest of Marxist scholarship to give a full reckoning of their work, which transcends questions of the viability of slavery as a mode of production. Furthermore, my purpose in writing these articles is to address the broader intersections of race and class in American society.

(In the course of doing some background research, I was struck by the almost universal interest among Marxists on the topics of slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction no matter their time and place. It is almost incumbent on any serious Marxist thinker to come to terms with both the left-academic scholarship and the writings of party activists such as Lenin, Peter Camejo, George Novack, Max Shachtman and others.)

Both Engerman-Fogel and Genovese tend to see a kind of paternalism at work in the slave-owning class. For Genovese, the paternalism is a function of ‘seigneurial’ values based on noblesse oblige. For Engerman-Fogel, the paternalism is based on the kind of enlightened “personnel relations” found in modern corporations like “Ma Bell” in the 1930s, when protection against layoffs and provisions for cheap lunches were the norm. In other words, take care of your workers and they’ll take care of you. As Genovese put it in his concluding remarks to the Rochester conference, “Professor Fogel and Engerman describe it [slavery] as a capitalist society modified by paternalism.” One then might characterize Genovese’s view of the system as seigneurial paternalism modified by capitalism.

When Stanley Engerman and Robert Fogel’s “Time on the Cross” appeared, it was accompanied by the kind of publicity blitz enjoyed by Hardt-Negri’s “Empire”. With its full panoply of computer-generated tables and graphs, it preened itself as a scholarly work taking full advantage of the technological revolution then unfolding. (The source for this and the material that follows can be found in Charles Crowe’s “Time on the Cross: The Historical Monograph as a Pop Event”, which appeared in “The History Teacher” in August 1976.)

Peter Passell, a Columbia University professor and NY Times economics reporter, hailed the book as a “jarring attack on the methods and condition of traditional scholarship”. A Newsweek essay was even more effusive. Journalist Walter Clemons regarded the new conclusions based on “electronically sifted data” as “dynamite”. What were the new findings that so excited Clemons? They amounted to rejections of “old historical notions” and “myths” such as the “ubiquitous white overseer”. Tales of disruptions in the black family when a husband or wife was sold to another plantation were merely “abolitionist horror stories”. Indeed, Engerman and Fogel regarded many of these abolitionists as “racists”.

Time Magazine topped all others in its enthusiasm for “Time On the Cross” and its ethical implications for contemporary American society. Using the sort of linguistic glibness and insensitivity characteristic of this uniquely imperialist publication, it ran a caption “Massa’s in de Cold, Cold Computer” alongside their feature article. It also tossed in another bit of song parody: “The young folks roll on the little cabin floor/Tis summer, the darkies are gay.”

Time writer Timothy Foote wrote that “the marriage and molasses nostalgia of a Stephen Foster may somewhat more accurately describe the relationship between slave and master than any serious historian has been willing to admit for years”. The plantations in “Time on the Cross” suggested “both a Victorian family and a paternalistic corporation eager to encourage worker morale”. Despite Sally Hemming and the palpable evidence of Malcolm X’s complexion, the “owners rarely exploited black females sexually” because “it was bad for morale”.

Unlike Eugene Genovese, who was considering ways in which his own work could “absorb” this sort of racist tripe, other Marxists were revolted by “Time on the Cross”. Herbert Aptheker, who might have been the last person in the world invited to present a paper at the Rochester conference co-organized by Engerman and Genovese, wrote a lengthy rebuttal in the pages of Political Affairs, the CPUSA journal. Titled “Heavenly Days in Dixie: Or, the Time of their Lives”, it linked Engerman and Fogel to William Schockley and Arthur Jensen, who wrote a book “proving” that blacks were genetically inferior to whites.

Aptheker’s main axis of attack was around Engerman and Fogel’s reliance on US census figures, which supposedly supported their conclusion that blacks were well off under slavery. Aptheker points out that census takers were white and subject to the racial prejudices of the time. If blacks were undercounted, as they certainly were, then attempts to come up with daily caloric intake on a per capita basis will overstate food input.

In his exasperated conclusion, Aptheker cries out, “Sometimes one is led to the point of near-despair when he reads books like ‘Time on the Cross’, by relatively young professors, and see how they are hailed and their book pushed and advertised and reviewed; a book that is as false, as contrived, as vicious as is this one. But, of course, one knows that it is only a dying social order that needs and produces such books–just as that of Calhoun and Jefferson Davis needed the work of Fitzhugh.”

Eventually more mainstream scholars began to discover that the emperor was not wearing clothes, including some of the scholars at the 1972 Rochester conference who made their devastating critiques in collegially deferential language. Martin Duberman was one of the first to open up an attack in the mass media. In the Village Voice he pointed to the book’s failure to distinguish between factual and evaluative statements and its skewed data about slave life. African-American historian Winthrop D. Jordan attacked Engerman and Fogel as “perversely self-righteous snake root salesmen”. Perhaps the most telling indictment of “Time on the Cross” came from Robert Fogel himself, who wrote “Without Consent or Contract” in 1989 as a way of atoning for the earlier work. Not only did he take a moral stand against slavery in this book, he admitted that he originally “did not emphasize the horrors and human cost of slavery”. (NY Times, Dec. 16, 1989) What he would not admit, however, was that the cliometric approach itself, with its number-crunching and single-minded focus on economic performance, could never do justice to the “peculiar institution” in all its complexity.

While Genovese never generated the kind of controversy that Engerman and Fogel did, there were some Marxist scholars who were just as adamantly opposed to his message. One of them was Herbert Gutman, the eminent labor historian who had also written a trenchant criticism of “Time on the Cross”.

In “The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925″, which some regard as a rebuttal in its entirety to Genovese’s scholarship, Gutman takes up the claim that slaves lived in an “elaborate web of paternalistic relations” as Genovese put it. Although Gutman acknowledges that slave masters viewed themselves in this light, he questions whether this was the way that their subjects perceived it. For example, in response to Genovese’s claim that a high rate of slave reproduction proved “the paternalistic quality of the masters”, he states that a high reproduction rate does not depend on “good treatment”.

Some years later Gutman gave an interview to Mike Merrill, the codirector of the Institute for Labor Education and Research in New York City. His comments on Genovese are worth quoting in their entirety:

This is the context, I think, in which we can best understand Eugene Genovese’s work. He posed some important questions. My difficulty is with how he went about answering them. A central question raised in Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made is the effect slaves had on their owners. A splendid question. To answer it one needs to know who the slaves were early in time and how the master-slave relationship was formed and developed.

Think of it this way. Suppose one was writing a book on ironworkers and steelworkers in Pittsburgh called Roll, Monongahela, Roll: The World the Steelworkers Made. How would that book begin? It is not a book about the steel industry. It is not a book about class relations in the steel industry. It is subtitled The World the Steelworkers Made. Would it begin with a 150-page essay quoting from and explicating Andrew Carnegie’s Autobiography and his letters? If one writes about the world the steelworkers made, the book should begin with the men before they were steelworkers and study how they became steelworkers. It would begin with them before they experienced Andrew Carnegie and then watch a world being made as they become steelworkers and interact with Andrew and his factories. Obviously this is precisely the innovative and bold structure of The Making of the English Working Class. We don’t begin with industrial capitalism already imposed and study strands of upper-class ideology. We begin with the world of the artisan. We begin with the world of the handicraft weaver. We begin with the world before modern capitalism. Then the interaction is intense, painful, sometimes violent, and even creative.

The way in which you examine a world people make is to show that world in formation. A major conceptual problem in Roll, Jordan, Roll is that it ignores class formation. A static class relationship is probed for several hundred pages, sometimes imaginatively and brilliantly. We are presented with a fully developed slave system. Class relations and ideologies are described only in the late slave period, the decades immediately prior to emancipation.

The problem with such an approach is that when you freeze a moment in time to examine a structural relationship, you cannot neglect the process by which that relationship was formed, how it developed. If you either ignore or misunderstand that process, then you can give almost any meaning you want to the relationship and to its constituent parts. What struck me on rereading Roll, Jordan, Roll is that it is so very functionalist. It is as if we are being told, “This is the way that society worked, why there was so little rebellion, and slaves and their owners made it through the day and night.”

I want to conclude this article with some brief remarks on Post’s understanding of what was at stake in the confrontation between the Northern industrial bourgeoisie and the Southern slave masters. In the conclusion to his article, he writes:

The growing contradiction between the social conditions of the development of capitalism and of slavery set the stage for the sharp class conflicts over the social character of the expansion of commodity production that dominated political life in the 1840s and 1850s. Put another way, the political conflicts that culminated in the US Civil War were rooted in the contradictory social requirements of the development of industrial capitalism and plantation slavery. The contradictory requirements led to sharpening conflicts between manufacturers, merchants, farmers, planters and slaves over a variety of political policies, but especially the future class structure of westward expansion, in the two decades leading to the Civil War. These sharpening class conflicts produced the political crisis — the collapse of the ‘bi-section’ Whig and Democratic parties, the increasing ‘sectionalization’ of political life, and the ‘secession crisis’ — that culminated in four bloody years of Civil War. The outcome of the war and the nearly dozen years of tumultuous struggles during ‘Reconstruction’ ultimately secured the social and political conditions for industrial capitalist development in the ‘Gilded Age’.

If one is committed to the Brenner thesis as a way of understanding the “sharp class conflicts” that led to civil war in the USA, one must then ask whether the outcome was consistent with what Brenner himself wrote. It would be useful to read his description of the sine qua non for “capitalist property relations” in the article “The Social Basis of Economic Development” that appears in John Roemer’s collection “Analytical Marxism”:

Under what conditions, then, will the economic actors adopt patterns of economic action conducive, in the aggregate, to modern economic growth? In my view, they can be expected to do so, only where all the direct producers are separated from their means of subsistence, above all the land, and where no exploiters are able to maintain themselves through surplus extraction by extra-economic coercion. It is only where the organizers of production and the direct producers (sometimes the same person) have been separated from direct access to the means of subsistence, that they must buy on the market the tools and means of subsistence they need to reproduce themselves. It is only where the producers must buy on the market their means of reproduction, that they must be able to sell competitively on the market, i.e. at the socially necessary rate. It is only in the presence of the necessity of competitive production – and the correlative absence of the possibility of cutting costs, or otherwise raising income, by forcefully squeezing the direct producers – that we can expect the systematic and continual pressure to increase the efficiency of production which is the sine qua non of modern economic growth.

Although Brenner’s prose is a bit abstruse, the statement that capitalism can only exist “where no exploiters are able to maintain themselves through surplus extraction by extra-economic coercion” is simply not confirmed by the historical example of the post-Reconstruction South. That is, if by “extra-economic coercion” we mean debt peonage, convict labor, KKK violence intended to keep people tied to the land and a host of other racist institutions to keep black people in their place and out of competitive labor markets. If the Brenner thesis is about the creation of an agrarian class of property-owners that uses mechanization and wage labor to supply food and other necessities to rapidly industrializing cities, none of this happened in the American South after Reconstruction. Indeed, as we shall learn, Reconstruction itself would go to great lengths to provide just about everything to the emancipated slaves except the forty acres and a mule promised them, the only substantive measure that could have provided the objective basis for a yeoman social formation in Dixie.

In my next post, I plan to examine the exact nature of the “class conflict” between the North and the South and whether the eradication of slavery was a key element of this. While the Civil War no doubt ended ownership of one human being of another, the outcome not only fell short of the standards set by Brenner’s 17th century England, but those presumably dictated by the “bourgeois-democratic revolution”.

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