Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 24, 2018

Capitalism and slavery

Filed under: slavery,transition debate — louisproyect @ 8:40 pm

Read the book here

Fifteen years ago I began writing a series of articles about capitalism and slavery to answer Charles Post’s July 2003 Journal of Agrarian Change article titled “Plantation Slavery and Economic Development in the Antebellum Southern United States” that applied the Brenner thesis to the “peculiar institution” and its abolition. In essence, Post argues that slavery in the south was “pre-capitalist”, a term I always found rather noncommittal since it failed to make a distinction between a slave economy based on commodity-production—such as the American south—and those that were associated with a tributary society like the Ottoman Empire. There is a huge difference obviously between Janissary slaves who were highly privileged military elites and those men and women kidnapped from Africa and forced to produce cotton for the textile mills of capitalist England.

Post has basically been self-plagiarizing the article ever since and has made a studied effort to pretend I do not exist, except to make snarky references to me on FB. I was treated rudely by his good buddy Vivek Chibber at an HM conference a few years ago. One wonders if these two high priests of Marxism ever had a regular job like mine working in a cubicle whether they would have written a single article about anything at all.

Chibber and Post belong to an academic cult called “Political Marxism” around Robert Brenner and the late Ellen Meiksins Wood that has a beachhead in the NYU Sociology Department. It is there that you get trained to write articles arguing that colonialism and slavery had little to do with the rise of capitalism even though that’s specifically what Marx wrote in chapter 31 of V. 1 of Capital. If having faith in Political Marxism separates you from the ideologically impure, what can one make of Post’s recent polemic against Chibber’s defense of market socialism in Jacobin? If the Brenner thesis is a vaccine against revisionism, Chibber must have been injected with a placebo.

For many years, the Brenner thesis was virtually hegemonic in the academy, with support from many professors having no connection to Marxism. My good friend, the late Jim Blaut, explained why there was such readiness to accept it:

This point of view is basic diffusionism: autonomous development at the center, diffusion of development to the periphery. It is also tunnel history: a form of tunnel-vision which tries to explain the rise of capitalism, and the rise of Europe, by looking only at prior European facts, looking, as it were, down the European tunnel of time, ignoring the history of the world outside of Europe both as cause of change within Europe and as the site of historically efficacious change in its own right (Blaut, 1989). The Euro-Marxists — as I will call the socialists of this tradition — accept this view, and so they are diffusionists. To this extent, they agree with their mainstream colleagues about the rise of Europe, of capitalism, of modernization, of industrialization, of democracy: basically all of it is European.

Euro-Marxism went into eclipse during the period when liberation movements were decolonizing most of the world. In this period, the idea that the colonial or Third World has been, and is, unimportant in social development was not popular among Marxists. After the end of the Vietnam War, however, this point of view became again popular, and indeed became the Marxism most widely professed in European and American universities. Today we witness the curious phenomenon that Euro-Marxists are quoted with approval by anti-Marxist scholars, who can use them to show that “real” Marxist scholarship supports some of the same doctrines, theoretical and practical, that conservatives do.

Jim never wrote much about American slavery in his books and articles but he certainly did in Internet mailing lists like PEN-L where support for the Brenner thesis ran deep. Even before I ran into Jim on Marxmail, I would have found arguments like Post’s questionable at best because like many 60s radicals I had read Eric Williams’s “Capitalism and Slavery”, based on his doctoral dissertation, that was mandatory reading whatever your ideology, especially for Trotskyists. 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.

In 2013 and 2014, three books came out that rested firmly on the foundations of Eric Williams’s “Capitalism and Slavery”:

  • Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Cambridge: Belknap, 2013)
  • Edward Baptist, The Half That Has Never Been Told: The Making of American Capitalism (New York: Basic, 2014)
  • Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York: Knopf, 2014).

As expected, Post wrote an attack on what has now become known as the New Historians of Capitalism (NHC) school for not having a proper understanding of capitalism. In a preface to an article in Catalyst, part of the Bhaskar Sunkara publishing empire, Post wrote:

The New Historians of Capitalism (NHC) claim that their refusal to “define” capitalism is a historical and theoretical virtue. In reality, NHC do have a concept of capitalism — a system of trade, finance and extra-economic coercion and dispossession. Unfortunately, these social processes have existed trans-historically.

If you’ve read the founding document of Political Marxism, Robert Brenner’s 1977 NLR article “The Origins of Capitalist Development: a critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism”, this will sound familiar. The Brennerites have a rather narrow definition of capitalism, one based on the premise that it involves free wage labor producing commodities on the basis of relative surplus value—in other words, using machinery rather than ratcheting up the work-day hours to produce absolute surplus value, especially through coercion. Strictly speaking on this basis, there was no capitalism anywhere in the world in the mid-1800s except in England and the American north. Not even in France or Germany.

Unfortunately, I could not justify spending $60 to take out a Catalyst subscription to read Post’s article that is behind a paywall but in lieu of that, you can join me in reading NYU Sociology Department dissertation student John Clegg’s “Capitalism and Slavery” on ResearchGate. Like Post, Clegg faults the three historians for not having a coherent account of capitalism. To be fair to Clegg, he differs from Post in defining slavery as capitalist because of its “widespread and systematic market dependence.” Oddly enough, Clegg’s understanding is based on an idiosyncratic version of the Brenner thesis:

In this essay I argue that Robert Brenner’s conception of capitalism as generalized market dependence may provide the theoretical framing that is largely missing in these works.10 Brenner points out that while markets have existed in all known societies, only in capitalism are productive agents dependent on the market for their survival. This is because producers in capitalist societies have no direct (nonmarket) access to the means of production, including their own means of subsistence, and must therefore sell to survive. Since prices will be determined by the interaction of many producers in the market, producers in capitalist societies are compelled not only to sell but also to produce at a competitive cost.

Well, maybe so but if two people swearing by the Brenner thesis can come up with a definition of slavery totally opposed to each other’s, you really have to wonder if the theory itself is problematic especially since Brenner’s 1977 article was emphatic:

To state the case schematically: ‘production for profit via exchange’ will have the systematic effect of accumulation and the development of the productive forces only when it expresses certain specific social relations of production, namely a system of free wage labour, where labour power is a commodity. (emphasis added)

For Post and Clegg, the NHC represents a challenge to their understanding of Marxism even if they can’t seem quite able to agree with each other on the finer points of the Brenner thesis.

But only recently did I discover that Johnson, Baptist and Beckert are also fending off attacks from other quarters having little connection to Marxism. It doesn’t surprise me that they never bothered to answer Post or Clegg since having Talmudic debates over Marxist theory would have little appeal. I sometimes wonder why I bother myself.

I had run across a link somewhere, probably on FB but I can’t be sure, to a recording of a panel discussion on “Free and Unfree Labor: The Political Economy of Capitalism, Share-Cropping, and Slavery” chaired by Robert Brenner in the UCLA Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. Unfortunately, it cuts off in the middle of a presentation by Columbia professor Suresh Naidu who is working on a book about these questions and even before John Clegg had a chance to weigh in. But I was able to hear the entire talk by Gavin Wright, a 74-year old Stanford professor who has written a number of books and articles on these questions as well but none in recent years until the NHC cropped up.

Wright comes at the slavery and capitalism from two contradictory angles. He begins by stating that Eric Williams was correct in attributing the rise of British capitalism to slavery but then changes gears to attack Johnson, Baptist and Beckert for overemphasizing the importance of slavery. I know that consistency is the hobgoblin of petty minds but really..,

Much of Wright’s attack is based on an article written by Alan L. Olmstead and Paul W. Rhode titled “Cotton, Slavery, and the New History of Capitalism”, which is particularly focused on the work of Edward Baptist who is particularly reviled by the non-Marxist critics of NHC.

Basic to Baptist’s research is the notion that it was torture that accounts for an increase in productivity on cotton plantations. Olmstead and Rhode, who are economists rather than historians, claim that it was a new variety of seeds that was key. They write, “Baptist ignored the well-documented argument that picking rates had increased in large part due to a succession of improved cotton varieties.” In other words, it was technological advances rather than the whip that worked.

In trying to get a handle on Olmstead and Rhode’s approach, I discovered that they co-authored a book in 2008 titled “Creating Abundance: Biological Innovation and American Agricultural Development” that sounds like it might have subsidized by Monsanto given the blurb on Amazon:

This book demonstrates that American agricultural development was far more dynamic than generally portrayed. In the two centuries before World War II, a stream of biological innovations revolutionized the crop and livestock sectors, increasing both land and labor productivity. Biological innovations were essential for the movement of agriculture onto new lands with more extreme climates, for maintaining production in the face of evolving threats from pests, and for the creation of the modern livestock sector. These innovations established the foundation for the subsequent Green and Genetic Revolutions. The book challenges the misconceptions that, before the advent of hybrid corn, American farmers single-mindedly invested in laborsaving mechanical technologies and that biological technologies were static.

In addition, they co-authored an article titled “Biological Innovation and Productivity Growth in the Antebellum Cotton Economy” for Dec. 2008 Journal of Economic History that even finds the same kind of entrepreneurial innovation in a region viewed as a “precapitalist” sinkhole by Charles Post:

The achievements of antebellum southern cotton breeders surpassed those of northern wheat breeders. Our findings shed light on these advances in cotton breeding, as well as the movements in slave, cotton, and land prices; the factors responsible for the growth of cotton output and the spread of cotton cultivation; the sources of the differences in regional production and productivity between the Old and New South; as well as the conventional static comparisons of plantation and non-plantation efficiency.

I’ll close with a passage from a very useful article on the debate by Marc Parry that appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled “Shackles and Dollars”, which is behind a paywall (contact me at lnp3@panix.com for the entire article.)

Much criticism of Baptist and others originates within the subfield of economic history. These are scholars, trained mostly in economics, who bring a social-science perspective to studying historical economic behavior. That means testing hypotheses against data. It means quantitative analysis. And it means counterfactual thinking. When historians claim slavery was essential to the Industrial Revolution, as Beckert and Baptist both do, to economists that implies it would not have happened in slavery’s absence. If scholars feel uncomfortable making that statement, “than they should think harder about the initial claim,” Hilt says. Economic historians have thought very hard about the slave economy for decades. They believe slavery was profitable. But they also believe the institutions created to sustain it harmed the South’s long-term development.

As they see it, the problem with the new slavery books stems in part from how the discipline of history has developed. In the ’60s and ’70s, historians and economists battled over economic history. But as historians turned toward culture, and economists became more quantitative, economic history increasingly became just a subfield of economics. For a variety of reasons, including the 2008 crisis, historians are turning their attention back to financial matters. But they “did not build up their tools in order to understand the material world,” says Rhode. “And they carry along certain ideological positions which they hold fervently and are not willing to test.” Historians, he says, “can’t be making stuff up.”

Not surprisingly, Rhode’s targets see things differently. Start with Baptist. He ended up pulling out of the Dartmouth debate, blaming scheduling problems, so he was not on stage to rebut Olmstead’s wand-waving. Reached by phone, however, he does so aggressively. Baptist sees a basic flaw in Olmstead and Rhode’s research — a problem that points to the methodological gulf dividing historians and economists.

Economists are ‘so obsessed with detail that they don’t really confront the broader dynamics of the interpretations.’ It comes down to seeds. Olmstead and Rhode say that cotton picking got more efficient because of improved varieties of Upland cotton. They reach that conclusion in part by comparing the growth in Upland cotton to the lack of growth in Sea Island cotton. The problem, Baptist says, is that comparison assumes there was no real difference in the labor systems used to produce those crops. But there was. As Baptist writes in a blog post responding to Olmstead and Rhode, historians have shown that Sea Island planters assigned slaves a “task,” or a specific amount of work they had to get done each day. Task accomplished, they could go home. The quantity of work demanded under the task system did not change much prior to emancipation, he says, partly because those slave communities resisted increased labor demands.

To Baptist, the root problem with Olmstead and Rhode’s work is reductionism. The economists are bent on stripping causality down to one variable (seeds), assuming away things they have no business discarding (different systems of labor). They also falsely suppose that economic actors will always look at a situation and identify the most efficient way of achieving their goals. So, by this logic, planters in 1800 understood everything about extracting labor that they understood in 1860. But that’s antithetical to how many historians think, Baptist says. Historians believe causality is complex and cultural frameworks are in constant flux. By 1860, planters may have formed different ideas about what they should be trying to get out of laborers.

Baptist calls Olmstead and Rhode “profoundly naïve” about the plantation records that anchor their research. “These are not documents that were generated to test seeds,” he says. “They are documents that were generated to measure labor. And to measure labor that was being extracted by force. And to measure labor that we know, from dozens and dozens of different testimonies by people who survived it, was generated by the threat of being whipped for not picking enough cotton.”

When economists gripe about historians retreating from economics, historians offer a counternarrative: “The problem is the economists left history for statistical model building,” says Eric Foner, a historian of 19th-century America at Columbia University. “History for them is just a source of numbers, a source of data to throw into their equations.” Foner considers counterfactuals absurd. A historian’s job is not to speculate about alternative universes, he says. It’s to figure out what happened and why. And, in the history that actually took place, cotton was extremely important in the Industrial Revolution.

Some economists who attack the new slavery studies are “champion nitpickers,” adds Foner, who has praised Baptist’s book in The New York Times and who taught Beckert at Columbia. “They’re barking up the wrong tree. They’re so obsessed with detail that they don’t really confront the broader dynamics of the interpretations. Yes, I’m sure there are good, legitimate criticisms of the handling of economic data. But in some ways I think it’s almost irrelevant to the fundamental thrust of these works.”


  1. How does this debate relate to explanations over the origins of the US Civil War?

    If the idea is that the South was based on a slave mode of production (which it surely was), it’s still true that it was completely integrated into the capitalist exchange system as can be seen by New York’s role in helping develop the Southern markets and the South’s trading relationships as a raw materials supplier to the cotton mills of Manchester. Hence it seems to me you could say that both views have some validity but it depends on the stress and to me the most important stress would be to see the South as heavily integrated into the modern capitalist world of exchange even if the social basis of production in the South was based on chattel slavery and not wage slavery. So is there no acknowledgement of a world system/Braudel view of capitalism at all?

    It seems to me the view Marx had was that the “advanced” capitalist north was doomed to clash with the more backward South but Marx never really examined the South’s integration into the London and NY financial and trading markets, which were centers of the advanced capitalist world of that time. In fact, New York was really very sympathetic to the South based on these economic connections. In short, the supposed “progressive bourgeoisie” in the North was not very progressive at all.

    It was also this trans-Atlantic network that made Engels’ mill in Manchester run and which, in turn, helped Engels bankroll Marx. In the early 1850s, Engels was even planning to visit New Orleans on a business trip for the mill but it never came off.

    How then is the cause of the Civil War explained by people in both camps?

    Comment by HH — March 26, 2018 @ 4:35 am

  2. This has some bearing on your question: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/origins/post2.htm

    Comment by louisproyect — March 26, 2018 @ 12:55 pm

  3. To me the text shows the limitations of Marxism 101 analysis. In the abstract we hear the “clashing economic interests of the Northern and Southern bourgeoisie would eventually lead to civil war” (boiler plate thinking). But as soon as one takes a closer look, we find that the “Northern bourgeoisie” is all over the place as are the workers, many of whom were Jacksonian Dems who despised the Whig/Republicans for a lot of reasons. In fact, the really big bourgeoisie in the North was very pro-Southern. Under Belmont, for example, they wanted very much to extend slavery to Cuba. They became “War Democrats” only because they objected to the political breakup of the Union and not slavery per se. Just the opposite in fact.

    As for Lincoln, he thought along similar lines when he appointed McClellan to fight a soft war to try and appeal to the divisions in the Confederacy between the Carolina types and the other Southern states who took their time to declare independence. It was only when he realized that instead of dividing the South by the soft policy that it had the exact opposite effect in uniting them even more did he turn to Grant. He only became “the Great Emancipator” by accident in a way. He never represented some mystical faction of the Northern bourgeoisie that opposed the economy of slavery although he did represent its containment given the challenge to more plebeian farmers and wage laborers in the North.

    As for Locke, surely this shows that the great alleged dichotomy between internal and external origins of capitalism never existed for Locke and his Whig friends as they saw no contradiction themselves between the ideological justification of private property uber alles and the exploitation of African slaves as property on a massive scale following the well-established example of Spain. However in Spain, at least there was a debate over whether the native population had souls.

    Hence I just fail to see how the “internal” versus “external” debate should be taken so seriously and so polemically since there was never this dichotomy in the minds of the people like Locke who were both radical ideologues for the Whigs and who laid the basis for the modern justification of slaves as private property.

    In short, I still don’t get it.

    Comment by HH — March 26, 2018 @ 3:00 pm

  4. HH, my analysis is close to yours. In fact, as I point out in subsequent posts in this series, the North liquidated Reconstruction as part of a trend against the threat of proletarian revolution in general and the Paris Commune in particular. You can follow this evolution in The Nation, where Godkin’s articles were quite toxic. You can find, for example, arguments against laws that would have curtailed KKK terror.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 26, 2018 @ 3:16 pm

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