Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 11, 2014

Slavery and Capitalism

Filed under: slavery,transition debate — louisproyect @ 3:38 pm

A passage from this extraordinary book:

Slavery, as the historian Lorenzo Greene wrote half a century ago and many scholars, such as Harvard’s Sven Beckert and Brown’s Seth Rockman, are today confirming, “formed the very basis of the economic life of New England: about it revolved, and on it depended, most of her other industries.” The expansion of slave labor in the South and into the West was still years away, but slavery as it then existed in the southern states was already an important source of northern profit, as was the already exploding slave trade in the Caribbean and South America. Banks capitalized the slave trade and insurance companies underwrote it. Covering slave voyages helped start Rhode Island’s insurance industry, while in Connecticut some of the first policies written by Aetna were on slaves’ lives. In turn, profits made from loans and insurance policies were plowed into other northern businesses. Fathers who “made their fortunes outfitting ships for distant voyages” left their money to sons who “built factories, chartered banks, incorporated canal and railroad enterprises, invested in government securities, and speculated in new financial instruments” and donated to build libraries, lecture halls, universities, and botanical gardens.

The use of slave labor in the North was ending by the time Amasa was building his Perseverance, but throughout New England there were merchant families and port towns—Salem, Newport, Providence, Portsmouth, and New London among them—that thrived on the trade. Many of the millions of gallons of rum distilled annually in Massachusetts a Rhode Island were used to obtain slaves, who were then brought to the West Indies and traded for sugar and molasses, which were boiled to make more rum to be used to acquire more slaves. Other New Englanders benefited indirectly, building the slave ships, weaving the “negro cloth” and cobbling the shoes to dress slaves, or catching and salting the fish used to feed them in the southern states and Caribbean islands. Haiti’s plantations purchased 63 percent of their dried fish and 80 percent of their pickled fish from New England. In Massachusetts alone, David Brion Davis writes, the “West Indian trade employed some ten thousand seamen, to say nothing of the workers who built, outfitted, and supplied the ships.”


December 4, 2014

When slaves were paid wages

Filed under: slavery,transition debate — louisproyect @ 10:01 am

(This is an excerpt from Greg Grandin’s beautifully written and mind-blowing “The Empire of Necessity”, a book that digs into the history that Herman Melville fictionalized in “Benito Cereno”. I had a suspicion from what I had read that the book would address the slavery-as-capitalism debate that is part of the broader debate around the Brenner thesis. The excerpt focuses on the role of slavery in Latin America, where it became instrumental in the development of capitalism on the continent but even more interestingly a particular form of the “peculiar institution” where slaves were paid wages.)

Slavery was the motor of Spanish America’s market revolution, though not exactly in the same way it was in plantation zones of the Caribbean, coastal Brazil, or, later, the U.S. South. As in those areas, Africans and African-descendant peoples might be used to produce commercial exports for Europe, mining gold, for instance, diving for pearls in the Caribbean and the Pacific, drying hides, or cutting cane.” But a large number, per-haps even most, of Africans arriving under the new “free trade in blacks” system were put to work creating goods traded among the colonies.

Enslaved Africans and African Americans slaughtered cattle and sheared wool on the pampas of Argentina, spun cotton and wove clothing in textile workshops in Mexico City, and planted coffee in the mountains outside of Bogota. They fermented grapes for wine at the foot of the Andes and boiled Peruvian sugar to make candy. In Guayaquil, Ecuador, enslaved shipwrights built cargo vessels that were used to carry Chilean wheat to Lima markets. Throughout the thriving cities of mainland Spanish America, slaves worked, often for wages, as laborers, bakers, brickmakers, liverymen, cobblers, carpenters, tanners, smiths, rag pickers, cooks, and servants. Others, like Montevideo’s doleful itinerants, took to the streets, peddling goods they either made themselves or sold on commission.

It wasn’t just their labor that spurred the commercialization of society. The driving of more and more slaves inland, across the continent, the opening up of new slave roads and the expansion of old ones, tied hinterland markets together and created local circuits of finance and trade. Enslaved peoples were at one and the same time investments (purchased and then rented out as laborers), credit (used to secure loans), property, commodities, and capital, making them an odd mix of abstract and concrete value. Collateral for loans and items for speculation, slaves were also objects of nostalgia, mementos of a fixed but fading aristocratic world even as they served as the coin of a new commercialized one. Slaves literally made money: working in Lima’s mint, they trampled quicksilver into ore with their bare feet, pressing toxic mercury into their bloodstream in order to amalgamate the silver used for coins. And they were money, at least in a way. It wasn’t so much that the value of indi-vidual slaves was standardized in relation to currency. Slaves were the standard: when appraisers calculated the value of any given hacienda, slaves usually accounted for over half its worth, much more valuable than inanimate capital goods like tools and millworks.

The world was changing fast, old lines of rank and status were blurring, and slaves, along with livestock and land, often appeared to be the last substantial things. Slaves didn’t just create wealth: as items of conspicuous consumption for a rising merchant class, they displayed wealth. And since some slaves in Spanish America, especially those in cities like Montevideo and Buenos Aires, were paid wages, they were also consumers, spending their money on items that arrived in ships with other slaves or maybe even, in a few instances, with themselves.12

Endnote 12. My understanding of the importance of slavery to South America’s market revolution is indebted to Adelman’s Sovereignty and Revolution. The deregulation the slave trade was a central component in Spain’s efforts to adapt the colonial system to the “pressures of ramped-up inter-imperial competition.” But, according to Adelman, unlike the large-scale, export-focused plantations found in the U.S. South and the Caribbean, slavery in South America linked together “ever more diverse and decentralized commercial hubs” throughout the whole of the continent. “It could be argued,” Adelman writes, “drawing on Ira Berlin, that South America’s expanding hinterlands were slave societies (not simply societies with slaves) where slaves were central to productive processes. Plantations existed, but they were embedded in more diversified social systems,” with smaller establishments and hybrid forms of wage and coerced labor. “Slavery helped support rapidly commercialized, relatively diffused and adaptive production in the South American hinterlands integrated by the flow of merchant capital. And as it did so, it helped colonies become increasingly autonomous economically and socially, from metropolitan Spanish and Portuguese command.” In other words, what became American freedom—independence from Spain—was made possible by American slavery (p. 59). Such an approach opens up new ways to compare U.S. and Spanish American slavery and allows for consideration of the economic importance of slavery without reproducing old debates about whether slavery was capitalist or compatible with capitalism. In the United States, historians have recently returned to an older scholarly tradition emphasizing the importance of slavery to the making of modern capitalism examining slavery not just as a system of labor or a generator of profit but as a driver of finance capital and real estate speculation, as well as looking at how plantations served as organizational models for “innovative business practices that would come to typify modern management,” as Harvard’s Sven Beckert and Brown’s Seth Rockman write, in “How Slavery Led to Modern Capitalism,” in Bloomberg, January 24, 2012 (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-01-24/how-slavery-led-to-modern-capitalism-echoes.html). See also Beckert and Rockman’s forthcoming edited collection “Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development,” to be published by University of Pennsylvania Press, as well as earlier work, including Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1944, and Sidney Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, New York: Viking, 1985; Sidney Mintz, “Slavery and Emergent Capitalism,” in Slavery in the New World, ed. Laura Foner and Eugene D. Genovese, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1969. See also Walter Johnson’s recent River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013.

November 9, 2014

Slavery, capitalism and economic growth: a response to Timothy Shenk

Filed under: Academia,economics,slavery — louisproyect @ 7:34 pm

Screen shot 2014-11-09 at 2.30.54 PM

Timothy Shenk

In the latest Nation Magazine there’s an article by Timothy Shenk titled “Apostles of Growth” that is a review of recent books making the case that slavery was integral to the rise of American capitalism, as well as a platform for some questionable theorizing about economic growth. Since the article is nearly 10,000 words long, one wonders how a mere dissertation student can exercise such clout. (Then again the editorial judgment of the magazine is suspect, demonstrated most recently by its urging a vote for Andrew Cuomo.)

This is not the first time that Shenk has used the magazine as a bully pulpit. Earlier this year our Ivy League prodigy had a 9,500-word article there titled “Thomas Piketty and Millennial Marxists on the Scourge of Inequality” that was also notable for a hefty word count and its confusion over what Marx stood for. After it came out, I wrote:

Much more serious is our author’s contention that ”All…socialists needed to seal their victory was a revolution, which capitalism’s contradictions would deliver to them.” In reality, Marx and Engels thought that the tasks were far more challenging. In Critique of the Gotha Programme, Marx writes: “What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.” Doesn’t that sound like the conditions that have prevailed in every post-revolutionary society over the past 100 years or so? If Marx was referring to a heavily industrialized country like England, where he expected the revolution to occur, what could he possibly have thought about Cuba’s prospects? Shenk talks about capitalist contradictions delivering a revolution like Pizza Hut, when in fact it is after the triumph of the people that the hard work really begins. I say that as someone who was deeply involved with providing technical aid to Nicaragua in the late 80s.

You find the same misunderstanding of Marx in his latest article. He writes: “In Capital, Marx wanted to prove not just that capitalist practices were uglier than the soothing fables its theorists spun (though he made that point too), but that capital’s internal logic drove the system toward collapse.” Although Shenk is a dissertation student, he has apparently not learned the need for citation. Where would you find Marx saying anything like “capital’s internal logic drove the system toward collapse”? I doubt that you could find such sentiments in Capital. (I just checked on www.marxists.org. There aren’t any.)

In fact the idea that capitalism will collapse because of internal structural defects like the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 is a crude reading best described as vulgar Marxism. Ernest Mandel, who was widely regarded as the foremost Marxist economist of his time, had a far more nuanced analysis in his 1990 “Karl Marx”:

Does Marx’s theory of crisis imply a theory of an inevitable final collapse of capitalism through purely economic mechanisms? A controversy has raged around this issue, called the `collapse’ or `breakdown’ controversy. Marx’s own remarks on the matter are supposed to be enigmatic. They are essentially contained in the famous chapter 32 of volume I of Capital entitled `The historical tendency of capitalist accumulation’, a section culminating in the battle cry: `The expropriators are expropriated’. But the relevant paragraphs of that chapter describe in a clearly non-enigmatic way, an interplay of `objective’ and `subjective’ transformations to bring about a downfall of capitalism, and not a purely economic process. They list among the causes of the overthrow of capitalism not only economic crisis and growing centralisation of capital, but also the growth of exploitation of the workers and their indignation and revolt in the face of that exploitation, as well as the growing level of skill, organisation and unity of the working class. Beyond these general remarks, Marx, however, does not go.

Turning to Shenk’s critique of the books under review, it is worth noting that although he rejects their premise, it is not from the “Political Marxism” perspective—one which describes the plantation system as “precapitalist”.

For Shenk, the new books, such as Edward E. Baptist’s “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism”, are defined by their shared belief that capitalism can be defined as a system based on economic growth:

Viewed from this perspective, capitalism is defined not so much by its institutions as by its results—not by what it is, but by what it does. The variety of ways in which labor can be commodified, the diverse forms that capital can assume, the different institutions that structure relations of production and exchange—all of these are just means subordinated to the larger end of economic growth. A weak definition of capitalism that might seem banal when reduced to its simplest terms—“capitalism’s only constant is change”—supports a historical narrative of remarkable scope.

Although I have yet to read Baptist or the other books under review, it seems unlikely to me that they were attempting to theorize capitalism. These are historians much more interested in identifying the role that slavery played in capital accumulation in the 18th and 19th century. For example, there’s not a single entry for Marx in Baptist’s index and a cursory examination of the pages indexed under “capitalism” reveals nothing of theoretical consequence. I suspect that the real importance of works such as his and Walter Johnson’s is the empirical data that will help confirm Eric Williams’s original hypothesis that without slavery capitalism could have not taken off in Britain and the USA. These are works that rest on the minutiae of receipts and tax records, not theorizing. At a certain point, Shenk has to admit as such:

According to Johnson, tracing the path of a single bale of cotton reveals more about the antebellum economy’s workings than any number of theories targeting “the grand abstraction” of capitalism.

It is too bad that Shenk found matters of cotton less interesting than “grand abstractions” of the sort that mesmerize him. If he had given more time to the authors’ research than his own agenda, the review would have served some use.

Understanding that the books got short shrift, let’s turn to some of our dissertation student’s Grand Theorizing, which was really the main focus of the nearly 10,000-word article.

The real agenda of the article is to investigate the possibilities for “economic growth” in the 21st century. He writes:

But what if growth stalls? That question has increasingly occupied economists, many of whom are convinced that we have reached a new stage in growth’s history. Those parts of the world with the longest experiences of growth—Europe and the United States—face the prospect of a sustained decline in the metric that has come to define prosperity, and the planet as a whole confronts the even more daunting challenge of mitigating the environmental damage that has accompanied economic growth since the Industrial Revolution. The irony is conspicuous. Historians have begun in large numbers to rewrite modernity as the history of growth at precisely the moment when moderns might have to learn to do without their accustomed rates of economic expansion—one last swoop for the Owl of Minerva before climate change ravages its natural habitat.

In this section, he makes sure to misrepresent Marxists once again:

A future in which the small amount of economic growth that is eked out accumulates in the bank accounts of the rich and boils the planet bears little resemblance to the bright forecasts of perpetual prosperity conjured by optimists in the mid-twentieth century. This bleak vista has convinced some that capitalism has entered its final days: absent the possibility of unlimited growth, the system will stumble forward until it collapses under the weight of its internal contradictions.

The system will stumble forward until it collapses under the weight of its internal contradictions? Where in the world does he encounter such vulgar Marxist formulations? The New Left Review? Socialist Register? Unless he is reading material I am unfamiliar with, the only collapse noted by Marxists with a functioning brain is the one gripping the socialist left, a movement much more in a state of collapse than capitalism. After the financial crisis of 2007, there was suffering across the planet, especially in southern Europe. But who in their right mind would have argued that capitalism in Greece was about to collapse under its own weight?

Most people with a background in Marxist politics—unlike Shenk—understand the importance of the subjective factor. With a divided left in Greece, one in which the Communists stubbornly refuse to back Syriza and anarchists hurl Molotov cocktails as if flames can destroy commodity production, who thinks that the system will collapse? In 1914, the European bourgeoisie were ready to destroy billions of dollars in property and the lives of millions of working-class soldiers to protect their own narrow interests. If it had not been for Lenin and the Bolsheviks, the miserable war might have lasted for another decade. As Mao Zedong once said, “It is up to us to organize the people. As for the reactionaries in China, it is up to us to organize the people to overthrow them. Everything reactionary is the same; if you don’t hit it, it won’t fall. This is also like sweeping the floor; as a rule, where the broom does not reach, the dust will not vanish of itself.” (Probably the only useful thing he ever said.)

Despite the article’s focus on economic growth, there’s little indication of how Shenk thinks this is possible or even if it is worthwhile. Flirting with the “no growth” current of the environmental movement, he writes:

Prophets of an end to economic growth, or of its triumphant resurrection, beg to be made into fools by an unpredictable future. Indictments of contemporary policy, however, don’t hang on forecasts of what is to come. That fact was clear to the hundreds of thousands of people who marched against climate change in September, and to anyone who felt a twinge of recognition after seeing the protesters in Zuccotti Park—or to the 58 percent of Americans who reported in a recent New York Times/CBS News poll that protecting the environment should take precedence over economic growth.

Missing from this gargantuan article is any consideration of the real measure of an economic system. It is not simply a question of a rising GDP. Class society is marked by violence both explicit and implicit. In South Africa striking workers are gunned down. In the USA, striking workers might not get gunned down but their factory might disappear to another country if the boss so decides. In my view people are far less interested in growth than they are in security and the right to live in dignity. I suspect that the well-heeled, Democratic Party supporting owners of the Nation Magazine had everything to gain by giving such ample space to an “expert” on Karl Marx who had so little interest in such questions.


October 28, 2014

Madison Washington and the Creole Rebellion

Filed under: african-american,slavery — louisproyect @ 5:30 pm

From Marcus Rediker’s “The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom“:

During the fall of 1841, Madison Washington, a self-emancipated former slave from Virginia, knocked on the door of Robert Purvis in Philadelphia as he was on his way back south to assist his wife’s escape from bondage. Washington had certainly come to the right place. Purvis had been active for several years in the Vigilance Committee and the Underground Railroad. He remembered, years later, “I was at that time in charge of the work of assisting fugitive slaves to escape.” Purvis already knew Washington because he had helped him gain his freedom by getting to Canada two years earlier. Washington had since “opened correspondence with a young white man in the South,” who had promised to ferry his wife away from her plantation and to bring her to an appointed place so that the two of them could then escape northward. Purvis did not like the plan. He had witnessed others undertake such dangerous labors of love and fail. He was sure that his visitor would be captured and reenslaved. Washington, however, was determined to carry on.

By coincidence Washington arrived at the abolitionist’s home on the very same day a painting was delivered: Nathaniel Jocelyn’s portrait, “Sinque, the Hero of the Amistad,” as Purvis called it. It so happened that Cinque and twenty-one other Amistad Africans had also been in Purvis’s large, majestic home on the northwest corner of Sixteenth and Mount Vernon streets, when they visited Philadelphia on their fund-raising tour of May 1841. (Cinque later sent a message, “Tell Mr. Purvis to send me my hat.”) Purvis had long been inspired by the Amistad struggle and in late 184o–early 1841, as the Supreme Court prepared to rule on the case, he commissioned Jocelyn to paint the portrait.

Washington took a keen interest in the painting and the story behind it. When Purvis told him about Cinque and his comrades, Washington “drank in every word and greatly admired the hero’s courage and intelligence.” Washington soon departed, headed south-ward in search of his wife, but he never returned, as he had hoped to do in retracing his steps toward Canada. Someone betrayed him, as Purvis had predicted (and only learned some years later). Washington was “captured while escaping with his wife.” He was clapped into chains again and placed on board a domestic slave ship called the Creole, bound from Virginia to New Orleans in November 1841.

As the Creole set sail, Washington remembered Cinque’s story—the courage and the intelligence, the plan and the victory. Working as a cook aboard the vessel, which allowed him easy communication with his shipmates, Washington began to organize. With eighteen others he rose up, killed a slave-trading agent, wounded the captain severely, seized control of the ship, and liberated a hundred and thirty fellow Africans and African Americans. Wary of trickery, Washington forced the mate to navigate the vessel to Nassau in the Bahama Islands, where the British had abolished slavery three years earlier. In Nassau harbor they met black boatmen and soldiers, who sympathized with the emancipation from below and took charge of the Creole, supporting the rebels and insuring their victory.

Representatives of the federal government literally screamed bloody murder, just as those of Spain had done two years earlier, following the rebellion aboard the Amistad. They demanded the return of the slaves, who must, they insisted, be tried in the United States for rising up to kill their oppressors. U.S. officials self-righteously defended the institution of slavery and called for all property to be restored to its rightful owners. The British government, however, refused to comply with the order. Madison Washington and many of his comrades gained their freedom, boarded vessels bound hither and yon around the Atlantic, and left no further traces in the historical records.

The reverberations of the Amistad rebellion were beginning to be felt in the wider world of Atlantic slavery, as predicted by abolitionist Henry C. Wright, an associate of William Lloyd Garrison. He foresaw that Purvis’s painting, properly displayed, would confront slaveholders and their apologists with a powerful message about successful rebellion against bondage. To have it in a gallery would lead to discussions about slavery and the “inalienable” rights of man, and convert every set of visitors into an antislavery meeting.

Wright did not imagine a meeting of only two people, one of them a rebellious fugitive, nor could he have known that the painting would inspire radical action on another slave ship, which would result in both a collective self-emancipation and an international diplomatic row between the United States and Great Britain. The combination of the Amistad and Creole rebellions had a major impact on the antislavery struggle, pushing activists toward more militant rhetoric and practices. As Purvis concluded many years later, “And all this grew out of the inspiration caused by Madison Washington’s sight of this little picture.”

October 8, 2014

How Alexander Cockburn’s ancestor torched Washington and freed 6,000 slaves

Filed under: african-american,slavery — louisproyect @ 11:37 pm

Harpers Magazine, September 2014
Washington is Burning
Two centuries of racial tribulation in the nation’s capital

By Andrew Cockburn

On a sunny Saturday in June, thousands gathered on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” This year marks the two-hundredth anniversary of Francis Scott Key’s composition, officially adopted as the national anthem in 1931 following news that leftist members of the Erie, Pennsylvania, city council were opening meetings with a rousing chorus of “The Internationale.” As the melody rang out over the grass and along Constitution Ave- nue, it echoed off neighboring memorials and galleries, including the partly built National Museum of African American History and Culture a block and a half down the street.

Although preceded by a lengthy program of musical performances, the anthem it- self got short shrift. As usual, only the familiar opening verse was sung, because of various ideological stumbling blocks in subsequent verses—most especially the third, with its fervent hope that

No refuge could save the hireling and slave

from the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave.

For myself, the words always evoke a glow of family pride, because Key’s malign desire that fleeing slaves should find no refuge was directly inspired by the actions of my distinguished relative Admiral Sir George Cockburn of the Royal Navy. Two hundred years ago this August, he fought his way to the White House at the head of an army partly composed of slaves he had freed, armed, and trained and torched the place, along with the Capitol and much of official Washington. In the course of a two-year campaign, he rescued as many as 6,000 slaves, and despite Key’s hopeful verse, not to mention angry demands from the U.S. government, he sailed them away to freedom.

Obviously, the admiral qualifies as one of the great emancipators, and I am proud to claim a connection. In a recent conversation with Dr. lonnie Bunch, who is over- seeing the creation of the African-American museum as its director, I suggested that he include George Cockburn in a Hall of the Righteous, cheek by jowl with Abraham Lincoln and William Lloyd Garrison. He was nice enough to hear me out, although he made it clear that his intention is not to produce a black version of the nearby Holocaust Memorial Museum, with its Wall of Rescuers, but something far broader in scope. The real challenge, Bunch told me, is to avoid a “rosy view of the past. Romanticized memory is not history.”

(Read full article in the print edition of Harpers. I have been subscribing since 1981 or so and have looked forward to each copy.)

September 28, 2014

When the Nation Magazine grew weary of Reconstruction

Filed under: african-american,liberalism,slavery — louisproyect @ 5:53 pm

A few days ago I had been consulting Douglas Blackmon’s “Slavery by Another Name”, a very fine history of post-Civil War forced labor, as part of a long-term research project to rebut Charles Post’s thesis on slavery as “precapitalist” when I came across a revealing reference to the Nation Magazine. As I have pointed out in the past, the magazine was a primary source of arguments on behalf of winding down Reconstruction. I had completely forgotten about the passage but was reminded of it today when a Facebook thread on Eric Alterman’s opposition to BDS prompted the query why the magazine puts up with him. In my view, the Nation has been problematic from its inception, lurching from abolitionism to articles attacking moves to make the KKK illegal. For a fuller discussion, I’d refer you to a piece I wrote in 2003: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/american_left/tainted_nation.htm

Douglas Blackmon:

A new national white consensus began to coalesce against African Americans with shocking force and speed. The general white public, the national leadership of the Republican Party, and the federal government on every level were arriving at the conclusion that African-Americans did not merit citizenship and that their freedom was not able enough to justify the conflicts they engendered among whites. A growing body of whites across the nation concluded that blacks were not worth the cost of imposing a racial morality that few in any region genuinely shared. As early as 1876, President Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the Union army of liberation, conceded to members of his cabinet that the Fifteenth Amendment, giving freed slaves the right to vote, had been a mistake: “It had done the Negro no good, and had been a hindrance to the South, and by no means a political advantage to the North.” “The long controversy over the black man seems to have reached a finality,” wrote the Chicago Tribune, approvingly. Added The Nation: “The Negro will disappear from the field of national politics. Henceforth, the nation, as a nation, will have nothing more to do with him.” That the parent had once sacrificed enormously to rescue the less favored child only made its abandonment deeply more bitter.

July 15, 2014

The Long, Low Black Schooner

Filed under: african-american,slavery — louisproyect @ 10:11 pm



The Long, Low Black Schooner (pages 114-118 from above)

On September 2, 1839, three days after the Amistad Africans arrived at the New Haven jail and thousands of people had already filed through to see them, the Bowery Theatre of New York began its performance of The Black Schooner, or, The Pirate Slaver Armistead; or The Long, Low Black Schooner, as it was more commonly called. An advertisement announced “an entire new and deeply interesting Nautical Melo-Drama, in 2 acts, written expressly for this Theatre, by a popular author,” almost certainly Jonas B. Phillips, the Bowery Theatre’s “house playwright” during the 183os.36 Based on “the late extraordinary Piracy! Mutiny! & Murder!” aboard the Amistad and the sensa-tional newspaper reports of “black pirates” that had appeared in the press before their capture, the play demonstrated how quickly the news of the rebellion spread, and with what cultural resonance. The title of the play came from the title of the New York Sun article about the Amistad rebellion published on August 31, 1839, which in turn had drawn on the recent descriptions of a pirate ship captained by a man named Mitchell, who had been marauding in the Gulf of Mexico.37

In 1839 the Bowery Theatre was notorious for its rowdy, raucous working-class audiences: youthful Bowery b’hoys and g’hals (slang for young working-class men and women of Lower Manhattan) and dandies, as well as sailors, soldiers, journeymen, laborers, apprentices, street urchins, and gang members. Prostitutes plied their trade in the theater’s third tier. The audience cheered, hissed, drank, fought, cracked peanuts, threw eggs, and squirted tobacco juice everywhere. During an especially popular performance, the overflow crowd might sit on the stage amid the actors and props, or they might simply invade it and become part of the performance. The owner and manager of the theatre, Thomas Hamblin, employed a pack of constables to prevent riots, which on several occasions exploded anyway. That the Bowery Theatre was associated with a big, violent anti-abolitionist riot in 1834 makes its staging of The Long, Low Black Schooner all the more remarkable.38

Paired with Giafar al Barmeki, or, The Fire Worshippers, an orientalist fantasy set in Baghdad, the play attracted “multitudes” to the nation’s largest theater. If performed every other day for two weeks (it may have run longer) at only two-thirds capacity of the theater’s thirty-five hundred seats (it may have been greater), the play would have been seen by roughly fifteen thousand people, about one in twenty of the city’s population. Another way of estimating the number in attendance is to divide the production’s gross earnings of $5,250 by prevailing ticket prices (most were twenty-five cents, some were fifty and seventy-five cents), which also suggests roughly fifteen thousand viewers. The play therefore played a major role not only in interpreting the Amistad rebellion, but in spreading the news of it soon after it happened. It was not uncommon for playwrights to work with timely and controversial events in order to draw larger audiences to their theaters.39

No script survives, but a detailed playbill provides a “Synopsis of Scenery, Incidents, &c.” Set on the main deck of the Amistad, the play featured the actual people who were involved in the uprising. The leading character was “Zemba Cinques, an African, Chief of the Mutineers,” based on Cinque and played by Joseph Proctor, a “young American tragedian,” perhaps in burnt-cork blackface, as was common at the Bowery.40 The “Captain of the Schooner, and owner of the Slaves” was Pedro Montes, the actual owner of four of the enslaved who sailed the vessel after the rebellion. The supercargo was Juan Ruez, based on Jose Ruiz, owner of forty-nine slaves on board. Cudjo, “a deformed Dumb Negro,” who resembles the “savage and deformed slave” Caliban in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, was apparently based on the “savage” Konoma, who was ridiculed for his tusk-like teeth and decried as a cannibal. Lazarillo, the “overseer of the slaves,” probably drew on the slave-sailor Celestino. Other characters included Cabrero the mate, sailors, and the wholly invented damsel soon to be in distress, Inez, the daughter of Montes and the wife of Ruez.41

Act 1 begins as the vessel sets sail from Havana, passing Moro Cas-tle and heading out to sea. The history of Zemba Cingues, the hero of the story, is recounted as a prelude to entry into the “hold of the schooner,” where lay the “wretched slaves!” The bondsmen plot and soon take an “Oath of vengeance.” In a rising storm, also noted in the accounts of the rebellion, “The Slaves, led by Zemba Cingues” force open the hatchway, which results in “MUTINY and MURDER!” The rebels seize the vessel and reset its course, heading eastward across the Atlantic to their native Sierra Leone. “Prospects of liberation” are at hand.42 Act 2 shifts to the captain’s cabin, now occupied, after the rebellion, by Zemba Cingues, as Montes and Rues sit, as prisoners, in the dark hold of the vessel (as their counterparts actually did). The world has been turned upside down: those who were below are now above, and vice versa. The reversal poses great danger to Inez, who has apparently fallen into the clutches of Cudjo and now faces “terrible doom.” Someone, probably Zemba Cinques, rescues her, forcing Cudjo to “surrender his intended victim.” Did the audience see a black hero rescue a white woman from the hands of a black villain? This is a theme of no small significance, given prevailing popular fears of racial “amalgamation,” which had ignited anti-abolition riots.

Zemba Cingues then sees a vessel (the U.S. brig Washington) sailing toward them, and holds a council among his fellow mutineers to decide what to do. They choose death over slavery—a sentiment repeatedly ascribed to Cinque in the popular press—and decide to “Blow up the Schooner!” (The Amistad rebels made no such decision, as many of them were off the vessel at Long Island when the sailors of the Washington captured their vessel.) Alas, it is too late as the “Gallant Tars” of the Washington drop into the cabin from its skylight and take control of the Amistad.

The end of the play is left uncertain, much like the fate of the Amis-tad captives, who were sitting in the New Haven jail not far away, awaiting trial on charges of piracy and murder. The playbill states: “Denoument—Fate of Cingues!” What indeed will be his fate? Did the play enact his execution, an ending that many, including Cinque him-self, expected? Or did it dramatize his liberation along with all of his comrades?43 The Long, Low Black Schooner was not an unusual play for its time. Slave revolt and piracy were common themes in early American theater. Rebellious slaves appeared in Obi, or, Three-Finger’d Jack, a play about a Jamaican runaway slave turned bandit, which was a staple after its American premiere in 1801; and in The Slave, an opera by Thomas Morton about a revolt in Surinam, first acted in 1817 and many times thereafter, into the 1840s. The Gladiator dramatized the famous slave revolt led by Spartacus in ancient Greece. It premiered in 1831, starred working-class hero Edwin Forrest, and may have been the most popular play of the decade. Pirates headlined popular nautical melodramas of the 183os, such as Captain Kyd, or, The Wizard of the Sea, performed first in 183o and numerous times thereafter, then published as a novel by J. H. Ingraham in 1839. John Glover Drew adapted Byron’s The Corsair for performance at Brook Farm in the early 184os. The great African American actor Ira Aldridge would soon act the lead in The Bold Buccaneer. Slave rebels and pirates sometimes appeared in the same plays, as they did in The Long, Low Black Schooner: “Three-Finger’d Jack” was something of a pirate on land, and indeed had been called “that daring freebooter.” Pirates also played a significant role in The Gladiator.44

Like other melodramas of the times, The Long, Low Black Schooner featured virtuous common people, usually laborers, battling villain-ous aristocrats—in this case, enslaved Africans striking back against the Spanish slaveholders Montes and Ruez. “Low” characters like Zemba Cingues spoke poetic lines in honorable resistance. They were routinely celebrated for their heroism, encouraging some degree of popular identification with the outlaw who dared to strike for free-dom. As Peter Reed has noted, audiences “could both applaud and fear low revolts, both mourn and celebrate their defeats.”45

The theater shaped the news of the Amistad rebellion as it spread it. A sympathetic, even romantic view softened the violence of the original event. Cinque’s poised and dramatic personal bearing during the legal proceedings earned him comparison to Shakespeare’s Othello.46 He was also likened to “a colored dandy in Broadway.” He clearly had the “outlaw charisma” so common to the “rogue performances” of the era. Having captured the attention of the theater world and the public at large, it was fitting that The Long, Low Black Schooner should be followed, in December 1839, by a production of Jack Sheppard, or, The Life of a Robber!, also written by Jonas B. Phillips. Like Sheppard, whose jailbreaks became “the common discourse of the whole nation” in Britain in the 1720s, and to whom the public flocked, paying admis-sion to see him in his cell, the “black pirates” of the Amistad were winning in their own bid to take the good ship Popular Imagination. A “Nautical Melo-Drama,” based on real people and dramatic current events, was playing out in American society as a whole.47

December 20, 2013

Screening Slavery

Filed under: Africa,Film,slavery — louisproyect @ 6:22 pm

We need more films like “Quilombo”–about slave revolts rather than slavery.

Counterpunch Weekend Edition December 20-22, 2013

Screening Slavery

In a podcast discussion between veteran film critic Armond White and two younger film journalists focused on their differences over “12 Years a Slave” (White, an African-American with a contrarian bent hated it), White argued in favor of benchmarks. How could the two other discussants rave about Steve McQueen’s film without knowing what preceded it? That was all the motivation I needed to see the two films White deemed superior to McQueen’s—“Beloved” and “Amistad”—as well as other films about slavery that I had not seen before, or in the case of Gillo Pontecorvo’s “Queimada” and Kenji Mizoguchi’s “Sansho the Bailiff” films I had not seen in many years. This survey is not meant as a definitive guide to all films about the “peculiar institution” but only ones that are most familiar. Even if I characterize a film as poorly made, I still recommend a look at all of them since as a body of work they shed light on the complex interaction of art and politics, a topic presumably of some interest to CounterPunch readers.

full: http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/12/20/screening-slavery/

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”.

May 30, 2013

Post gets pasted

Filed under: slavery,transition debate — louisproyect @ 2:44 pm

Charles A. Post

Science and Society, April 2013
The American Path of Bourgeois Development Revisited
by Daniel Gaido

(From the Haymarket author’s page: “Gaido is a researcher at the National Research Council (Conicet) in Argentina. He is the author of The Formative Period of American Capitalism and is currently working on a book on the history of German social democracy.”)


“The American Road to Capitalism” is an attempt to apply to the United Sates Robert Brenner’s model of the transition from feudalism to capitalism in England. According to Brenner, English landlords gave birth to capitalism in the countryside by turning their peasants into tenants in the early 16th century. Since in the United States there was no class of feudal landlords to act as prime movers of an “agrarian” capitalist development, Post makes the merchant-turned-land speculator the demiurge of American capitalism, asserting, against all historical evidence, that this class was able to “impose a social monopoly on land” shortly after the American revolution. The rest of Post’s theses on the American revolution, Southern plantation slavery, the Civil War and reconstruction are just elaborations of this fundamentally mistaken interpretation.

What the historical record shows is that the two American bourgeois revolutions — a notion that Brenner, Post and their fellow “political Marxists” reject — actually facilitated access to the land at nominal prices for white settlers. This widespread landownership amounted to a form of land nationalization that created favorable conditions for capitalist development through the abolition of ground rent, which constitutes a precapitalist barrier to the development of the productive forces under capitalism. This, and the absence of an absolutist state bureaucracy, in turn fostered the generalization of commodity production in the countryside, creating a wide home market for the development of industry in the North, which eventually dominated the Union in the aftermath of the Civil War. That is what Lenin showed in his analysis of the American path of bourgeois development,” which remains the foundation of any materialist approach to American history. Due to the weakness of Marxism in the United States, progress in this field has consisted mostly in setting the “American path of bourgeois development” in its peculiar settler colonialist — i.e., white supremacist — context, but the peculiarities of American capitalist development, their impact on class struggles and, through them, the ways in which those peculiarities shaped American political history largely remain to be explored.

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