Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 8, 2018

Charles Post’s palm-leaf hat

Filed under: slavery,transition debate — louisproyect @ 9:37 pm

Charles Post wearing a palm-leaf hat from the Museum of Social Property Relations collection in Bangor, Maine

Largely as a result of the ferocious debate taking place between the New Historians of Capitalism (NHC) and their detractors such as Alan Olmstead, Paul Rohde and Gavin Wright (whom Charles Post relies upon in his recent Catalyst critique of the NHC), I have decided to dive back into the controversies. Hopefully, I will find time to read the 3 seminal works by Walter Johnson, Sven Beckert and Edward Baptist that get the most attention—both positive and negative—but decided to revisit Charles Post’s analysis first. Even though the NHC seem oblivious to his writings (as he is to mine), it would be useful to have a fresh look at his “The American Road to Capitalism”. In the past, I focused mainly on the sections of the book dealing with the South since it was home to the cotton plantations that he viewed rather amorphously as “pre-capitalist”, a big-tent kind of term that could include the Inuit of Admiral Byrd’s time as well as Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. This time I read the sections of the book that deal with the North that Post identifies as the birthplace of American capitalism just as Robert Brenner identified the English countryside.

Post has a tunnel vision of history that is similar to the one that Blaut described in his critique of Brenner:

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.

Basically, Post’s diffusionism rests on the same kind of premise, namely that capitalism originated in places like New England, the Ohio valley, etc. and then diffused into the rest of the USA after the Civil War. When I began writing about the “transition debate”, I focused on the large farms that Brenner considered the hothouse of capitalism—mostly prompted by Richard Seymour’s defense of Political Marxism, a temporary episode for him fortunately. It now dawns on me that the plucky, freedom-loving farmers of the North play the same role that tenant farmers of 16th century England played in the Brenner thesis.

As I worked my way through Post’s book, I came across a paragraph that stopped me dead in my tracks:

Additional evidence for increasing market-dependence in the early nineteenth century comes from Thomas Dublin’s work on capitalist rural ‘out- work’ in environs of Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire. Farm-households in this region responded to the new competitive requirements of land-ownership by increasing the production of non-agricultural commodities. Before 1820, better-off farm-households utilised female and child-labour to produce cloth at home for sale on the market. After 1820, local merchants paid poorer farm-women and children to fabricate palm-leaf hats in their homes, which the merchants then sold to farmers and planters in the west and the south.

Palm-leaf hats? Are you fucking kidding me? In 1860, 60 percent of the value of American exports came from cotton and Post is honing in on palm-leaf hats as a sign that the capitalist embryo was growing? Say what? The palm-leaf hats make two other appearances:

Wealthier households began to specialise in the production of agricultural commodities such as wheat, meat, dairy and eggs; while poorer households began to provide labour-power to local merchants who were organising capitalist ‘outwork’-production of buttons, palm-leaf hats and other manufactured goods.

And once again:

While the merchants in palm- leaf hat-manufacture operated autonomously, organising a self-contained production-process carried out entirely in rural households; those in button-, shoe-, boot- and other capitalist domestic manufacture were often partners of manufacturers, who organised a centralised labour-process in a small workshop and ‘put out’ parts of the production-process to workers in the countryside.

So, if the South was exporting cotton to England that was used to fuel the industrial revolution, it mattered less than the god-damned palm-leaf hats? Why? Because the people making them were being paid a wage while the men and women picking cotton were not? Does any of this make sense?

While it may be a couple of months before I get around to the 3 NHC books alluded to above, I decided to download the new book “Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development” co-edited by Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman since a couple of the articles were relevant to the question of the exclusivity of Northern capitalism. A Kindle version of the book is $15.12 and well worth it if you are interested in these questions. I only shelled out the dough for it because it had been checked out of the Columbia library.

Post’s argument is that once the farms of the north ceased being “yeoman” (producing goods mostly for household consumption with any surplus sold in the market) and became capitalist, this led to an explosion of innovation, especially in farm machinery. In contrast, the “non-capitalist” plantations just ambled along content to use slaves. I would imagine that most people would look at Cyrus McCormick’s reaper as the product of such competition. In the chapter titled “An International Harvest: the Second Slavery, the Virginia-Brazil Connections, and the Development of the McCormick Reaper”, University of Georgia historian Daniel Rood reveals that the machine was actually invented on a slave plantation in Virginia. Imagine that!

In the 30 years before the Civil War, Brazil became the number one export market for American wheat flour and no city in the USA produced more wheat flour than Richmond, Virginia.

Furthermore, despite being a slave state, technical innovation in Virginia was equal to any “free” state in the North. Since wheat production was lucrative, land tended to be bought from small proprietors and turned into vast plantations that had the capitalization to innovate. Planters experimented with new techniques as well as coercing field hands. In other words, they were both keen on improving output both through invention and the whip. They used five-field rotation, imported guano (bat shit) from Latin America for fertilization, marling (another kind of fertilizer) and looked to Edmund Ruffin for guidance. Known as America’s best-known advocate of agricultural improvement (a term found liberally in Brennerite literature), Ruffin was a Virginia planter who marketed upwards of 5,000 bushels of wheat a year.

In addition to improvements in wheat production, Virginia became a prime venue for iron production using the latest methods. All this helped to spawn McCormick’s experiments on the Walnut Grove plantation. Below is a reenactment of the earliest attempt at creating a reaper on Walnut Grove, with one of McCormick’s slaves trailing behind the machine.

Besides being the birthplace of the reaper, Virginia’s wheat plantations were also keen on using the most advanced techniques to separate the wheat from the chaff. Slaves carried wheat to either a horse or steam-engine powered fan that did the job. While the norm in the South was to have livestock walk across the wheat to thresh the grain like barefoot Italian peasants stomping grapes to make wine, Richmond was anxious to keep the process as clean as possible to keep the Brazilian purchasers happy. Therefore, there was a heavy investment in mechanization to keep the wheat away from human contact.

Once McCormick had perfected his reaper, he relocated to Chicago and formed International Harvester, which is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of farm equipment today. Despite its location in a bastion of the abolitionist north, its roots were in a slave state thus demonstrating that tunnel vision is ill-suited to understanding the rise of capitalism in the USA.

As a symbol of Yankee independence and abolitionist zeal, New England was likely a place to pose the question of “What Have We to Do With Slavery” in the pre-civil war era. In a chapter written by University of Pittsburgh historian Eric Kimball with this title and the subtitle “New England and the Slave Economies of the West Indies”, you find further evidence of the futility of separating the north and the south in a non-dialectical fashion.

Kimball takes a close look at the interdependence of New England and the sugar-producing slave-based colonies of the Caribbean. Evoking the triangular trade of slaves, sugar and rum I learned about in high school, he expands upon these commodities and counts fish, livestock, timber and slaves as those shipped to places like Jamaica from New England.

It was such trade that allowed New Englanders to pay off debts to England during the colonial era. New England was deeply involved in the slave trade as well. Of the 139,000 Africans kidnapped from their homeland aboard New England ships, nearly 80 percent were on ships launched from Rhode Island. Many Rhode Islanders, including the Brown family whose slave-based fortune helped launch the prestigious university, were implicated in a slave trade that lasted over 200 years. Perhaps the “take-off” in manufacturing in the north should take these facts into account, even if it goes against the grain of Political Marxism.

Between 1709 and 1807, Rhode Islanders exported 11 million gallons of rum to Africa, all of which were produced by more than 20 distilleries. To the north, Massachusetts imported even more molasses from the West Indies to turn into rum. Thus, as Kimball points out, “New Englanders were converting slave-produced raw materials into valuable export commodities long before the construction of cotton textile mills during the antebellum period.”

Even larger than the slave trade was export of goods essential to the functioning of plantations such as whale oil for lamps. What else would have brought Ahab to risk his life except for the profits that could have been made? In a very real sense, the lights that those lamps produced helped to illuminate the labor processes of slave plantations in the Caribbean.

You also had to factor in the wealth that was produced from cod fishing, a key industry in New England. The dried, salted cod became “the meat of all the slaves in all the West Indians” according to George Walker, a British member of parliament in the 18th century. If the slaves ate cod, their masters feasted on livestock exported from New England. The governor of the colony of Connecticut stated that “Those vessels that go from hence to the French and Dutch Plantations…carry horses, cattle, sheep, hogs, provisions, and lumber.” On their return, they brought with them “molasses, cocoa, cotton and some sugar.”

There was also a vast amount of lumber shipped southward. Between 1768 and 1772, more than 160 million feet of pine board were exported to the Caribbean colonies from New England. Carrying all these commodities required an immense merchant fleet and thus fed into the shipbuilding industry that New England was noted for. Even if Charles Post chooses to sweep these connections under the rug, the power elite in New England of antebellum times readily admitted them as Kimball points out:

Indeed, contemporaries were well aware of the importance of this trade, and in 1818 Adam Seybert, a Pennsylvania congressman, provided an extremely useful description of it. In 1818, Seybert concluded that “we not only supplied the demand in our markets, but also furnished a considerable portion of Europe with the valuable productions of the Colonies of France, Spain, and Holland. The surplus re-exported produced a general activity in the sea ports of the United States.” He further noted that “without the intercourse with the colonies and the countries above enumerated, we should not have been able to extend our trade in the Europeans markets; in consequence of it we carried rich cargoes to the ports of France, Holland, Spain, Germany, and Italy.” This element, Seybert concluded, was critical: “it was from the profits of that trade, that we discharged our enormous debts in England.” Seybert estimated that a profit rate of $50 per ton in this branch of trade between 1795 to 1801 was “a moderate allowance” and that “intelligent merchants calculated it as high as 70 dollars per ton, on voyages of every description.

Ironically, the best introduction to this perspective can be found in Forbes, a magazine that portrayed itself as a “capitalist tool” in the 1960s. In a review of “Slavery’s Capitalism” titled “The Clear Connection Between Slavery And American Capitalism“, Dina Gerdeman asks Sven Beckert why historians made slavery out to be only a “southern problem”. I don’t know if she was referring to Charles Post but it sure sounds like it. Beckert replied:

This is an excellent question, and indeed, as you note, quite puzzling. It is puzzling for three reasons: For one, into the early years of the 19th century, slavery was a national institution, and while slavery was never as predominate a system of labor in the North as it was in the South, it was still important.

Second, there were a vast number of very obvious economic links between the slave plantations of the southern states and enterprises as well as other institutions in the northern states: Just think of all these New York and Boston merchants who traded in slave-grown goods. Or the textile industrialists of New England who processed vast quantities of slave-grown cotton. Or the bankers who financed the expansion of the plantation complex.

And third, both the abolitionists as well as pro-slavery advocates talked over and over about the deep links between the southern slave economy and the national economy.

Why did these insights get lost? I think the main reason is ideological and political. For a long time after the Civil War, the nation really did not want to be reminded of either the war or the institution that lay at its root—slavery. A country that saw itself as uniquely invested in human freedom had a hard time coming to terms with the centuries’ long history of enslaving so many of its people.

When slavery became more important to our historical memory, especially in the wake of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the work of reconciling the history of freedom and the history of enslavement involved quarantining the history of slavery to one section of the nation only. That allowed for doing two things simultaneously: It allowed for the belated acknowledgement of the importance, barbarity, and longevity of slavery in the United States. But it also allowed for a continued telling of the story of freedom, since the national story could be told as one in which one section of the United States, the North, fought hard to overcome the retrograde, coercive, and inhumane system of slavery in the other section.

Of course, this story is not completely wrong. Yet what it effectively did was to insulate the national story from the problem of slavery. A focus on the economic links generated around slavery, the story that our book charts, brings the story of enslavement squarely back into the center of the national history as a whole. And this is where it belongs.


  1. Thank you Louis for your continued study of the relationship between slave-based production and the overall capitalist social relations, as dictated internationally (not just regionally). I for one am learning a lot.

    Even the expropriation of means of production of independent producers (enacted through the land laws, the exclusion laws, the successive privatizations of the commons, etc.) — which is considered a pre-requisite for creating “free labor” that can “negotiate” a pay scale in exchange for a certain delivery of labor power, which alone is considered a proper capitalist set of social relations — requires the ultimate force of the state and the requisite enactment of necessary laws; all of which are “extra economic”.

    Further … When the entire world is run on the basis of commodity production, exchange and the profits based on the said production and exchange, no exchange is made without it being the realization of the surplus value therein of the products being sold on the market.

    So, the supposition that some surplus-value production in the age of the rise and maturation of capitalism is happening outside the overall capitalist system is not even logical on a mundane, obvious level.

    Comment by Reza — April 9, 2018 @ 3:02 am

  2. It’s interesting that as every schoolchild used to know, the cotton gin, essential to the industrial production of cotton on which the South relied in the 19th century, was invented by a native of Massachusetts, Eli Whitney, who is generally credited with having introduced the concept of interchangeable parts to industrial manufacture.

    This in my humble O. perfectly illustrates the combined and uneven nature of the actual development of capitalism and the indissoluble links between slavery and industrial capitalism, which Louis expounds here so convincingly and which Marx himself pointed out in Capital, in however (for him) perfunctory a fashion.

    It may be the case that Post’s palm-leaf hats and buttons actually do have some of the significance he attributes to them when it comes to the alleged “yeoman” nature of northern farming in days of yore and how that changed, if it did. But if Post is right about the “yeoman farmers,” setting aside the bigger picture that he appears to ignore so blindly, this need not IMHO be taken as weakening, the case for the inclusion of slavery as intrinsic to the development of industrial capitalism in the U.S. The case for separating the “precapitalist” slave south from the industrial north can’t be made merely by showing that in some parts of he northern U.S. a process roughly equivalent to English enclosure may have taken place. Nobody disputes the fact that a “reserve army of the unemployed” had to be formed to meet the demands of burgeoning industry.

    It’s worth pointing out that (AFAIK) the development of what we now call the U.S. Midwest, starting with Ohio, really got going in the 1820s, together with the waves of mechanization in both agriculture and industry and the maturation of the Deep South plantation economy. I very much doubt that the German immigrant farmers who transformed wilderness Ohio into a Jeffersonian grid in a couple of decades once the native Americans were driven out went through some process of de-yeomanization in situ, as Post alleges their new England brethren did. It would be interesting to see that history examined in more detail.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — April 9, 2018 @ 12:27 pm

  3. I really appreciate these posts as well.

    “Farm-households in this region responded to the new competitive requirements of land-ownership by increasing the production of non-agricultural commodities.”

    Perhaps, I am too stubborn, but didn’t this happen during earlier empires and states, as least those that emerged from the late medieval period onward? People in other parts of the world, in the Ottoman Empire, in Han Chinese empire, in India, in Europe during the mercantilist time of Venice, never did this? From my ignorant perspective, it just sounds implausible to me. James Scott even talks about trade between pastoral and nomadic peoples with sedentary states BCE, with the nomads and pastoralists trading non-agricultural commodities to them.

    In his work, Scott has highlighted limitations upon transportation and communications as explanations for the limited range of state authority until relatively recent times, say, the 17th and 18th centuries. I wonder whether the development of capitalism and its spread around the world can be better explained through technological innovation, including ones relative to transport and communications, than it can by searching for a magical point of origin. Or, at least an explanation that associates localized conditions with these innovations. Transportation and communication made the economic development of US, and its integration into a global trading system, possible.

    I like your exploding of the mythology that the South, pre-Civil War, was technologically backward. Of course, the notion that the South was an economically primitive place is one of the roots of the enduring stereotype that Southerners are ignorant, easily manipulated people compared to their brilliant Northern siblings.

    Comment by Richard Estes — April 9, 2018 @ 5:17 pm

  4. After 1820, local merchants paid poorer farm-women and children to fabricate palm-leaf hats in their homes … .

    OK maybe Post and or Dublin isn’t/aren’t saying that farmers as a whole were de-yeomanized and proletarianized as in England, but if he isn’t, what is the analogy with enclosure, if any?

    The English former feudal ruling class became “modern” producers of wool via a radical redefinition of their property as alI theirs and available to the marketplace like so many bags of the wool being produced from it, as opposed to something tied up in a complex, concrete (if horribly unequal and oppressive), and legally binding network of specific duties and obligations between tenants and landlords.

    The English landlords who profited from enclosure, as far as one knows, were NOT as such the principal employers of the new proles–here wealthy farmers are proletarianizing poorer farmers in a sort of cottage-industry phase, which sounds nothing like what happened in England as enclosures proceeded and the “satanic mills” became the only recourse of huge numbers of former farmers.

    How does this map on to anything that actually happened in New England or “the Ohio valley” whatever that means (as opposed to Ohio proper, which is mostly NOT in any meaningful sense the Ohio valley)? The whole idea of “diffusion” seems to overlook the incredible rapidity and gigantic scale of the processes whereby the USA we know came in the course of a few decades to replace the colonial world, which vanished virtually overnight. It also overlooks the pace and scale of immigration as a source of proletarians, beside which the Dublin/Post phenomenon (if even significant) necessarily pales into insignificance–doesn’t it?

    I hate to think I’ll have to part with money to actually read this book. There must be more to it than that. Where is the Reader’s Digest when you need it?

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — April 9, 2018 @ 5:22 pm

  5. Farans, the Brenner thesis is based on an interpretation of purely contingent events that preceded the Enclosure Acts by centuries. Basically, he argues that the class domination of a section of the nobility over land led to tenant farming, which had a competitive dynamic that in turn led to capitalist property relations. From Wikipedia:

    In the summary of Shami Ghosh, Brenner’s thesis ‘proposed an explanatory framework for the evolution in England, during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, of what he defined as “agrarian capitalism” ‘:

    a transformation of relationships between landlords and cultivators led to the creation of a largely free and competitive market in land and labour, while simultaneously dispossessing most of the peasants. Thus from the old class divisions of owners of land on the one hand, and an unfree peasantry with customary rights of use to land on the other, a new tripartite structure came into being, comprising landlords, free tenant farmers on relatively short-term market-determined leases and wage labourers; this Brenner defines as ‘agrarian capitalism’. Wage labourers were completely market-dependent – a rural proletariat – and tenant farmers had to compete on the land market in order to retain their access to land. This last fact was the principal motor of innovation leading to a rise in productivity, which, coupled with the growth of a now-free labour market, was essential for the development of modern (industrial) capitalism. Thus the transformations of agrarian class structures lay at the root of the development of capitalism in England.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 9, 2018 @ 5:43 pm

  6. One more thing before I shut up for good–I got hold of a PDF of Post’s book and, allowing for the inadequacy of Acrobat’s search algorithm, could find only one passing and ridiculously dismissive reference to the cotton gin.

    Talk about special pleading:

    Nor is there clear evidence that planters were ‘risk-averse’ in relation to investing in manufacturing. Planters, often in partnership with merchants, invested in iron-foundries, textile-factories, coal-mines, lumbering, ropemaking, cotton-ginning, sugar-refining and various other resource-extractive and plantation-auxiliary industries which used free white workers as well as owned and ‘hired’ slaves … .

    This is followed by a lame reiteration of the idea that, yes, there was industry in the South but not as much as in the North, so it doesn’t count.

    Is Italy not an industrial nation because Germany is more so?

    Could the south have exported the quantity of cotton it did without the cotton, brainchild of the godfather of the assembly line? Hell no twice. Furthermore, AFAIK, planters mostly appear to have owned their own cotton gins rather than hire the ginning out to third parties using free labor as Post seems trying to suggest in this breezy little blowoff. Per the Tennessee Encyclopedia:

    Throughout the nineteenth century most planters operated their own gins, which were usually housed in a two-story building that included a storage bin, saw gin, and lint room. Outside stood a wooden screw press that turned the processed cotton into huge bales ready for shipping.


    This pleading is so special that in my opinion it borders on dishonesty. But I admit Post’s book is very dense and hard to get through, so maybe I’m missing the golden rivet somewhere along the line.

    I shut up now.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — April 9, 2018 @ 6:01 pm

  7. Louis–thanks for your correction. What you describe sounds frankly nutty to me. If Brenner were right, what need would there have been for an Enclosure Act in the first place? Well, I am no economic historian.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — April 9, 2018 @ 6:07 pm

  8. However, I take your point, which is far more scholarly than mine–and of course does not in any way suggest that you are a Brennerite.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — April 9, 2018 @ 6:37 pm

  9. Actually, Brenner’s ideas don’t sound nutty to me at all. What was i thinking? Enclosure was well underway in the sixteenth century and, per Christopher Hill in Century of Revolution (yes, I know, but), was pretty well complete as far as sheep-farming went by the beginning of the seventeenth, although “Inclosure Acts” for other purposes continued to be enacted for centuries after that. Per Wikipedia, “Between 1604 and 1914, over 5,200 individual enclosure acts were passed, covering 6.8 million acres.”

    Our word “bourgeois” originally designated the wealthier classes of medieval towns–it makes perfect sense that some of the beginnings of capitalism can be seen in the fifteenth century and even earlier, with some elements going as far back as the eleventh century. Such is the sweep and scale of historical development in all its complexity. I wouldn’t presume to indict Brenner for inventing his data–probably he has done nothing of the kind, though one suspects he has bent the stick considerably–but the conclusions he draws are another matter.

    What makes no sense, as Louis has reiterated, is to look at this process to the exclusion of “precapitalist” slavery when the “rosy dawn” of capitalism in Marx’s sense clearly required both. This isn’t nutty but, as far as i can judge, is nevertheless both finally wrong and politically dangerously misleading at present. It seems way off base, even perversely so.

    I’m still bemused by the fact that Charles Post can discuss antebellum Southern industrialism without a substantial account of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, save one glancing reference in a passage where he apparently tries to suggest that “ginning” was routinely done by third parties using free white labor. That strikes me as bordering on the disingenuous if not frankly over the line of truthfulness.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — April 13, 2018 @ 1:02 am

  10. Farans, I was referring strictly speaking to the Enclosure Acts:


    The Enclosure Acts were one factor. These were a series of Parliamentary Acts, the majority of which were passed between 1750 and 1860; through the Acts, open fields and “wastes” were closed to use by the peasantry. Open fields were large agricultural areas to which a village population had certain rights of access and which they tended to divide into narrow strips for cultivation. The wastes were unproductive areas — for example, fens, marshes, rocky land, or moors — to which the peasantry had traditional and collective rights of access in order to pasture animals, harvest meadow grass, fish, collect firewood, or otherwise benefit. Rural laborers who lived on the margin depended on open fields and the wastes to fend off starvation.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 13, 2018 @ 1:21 am

  11. I’ve prolonged this thread far too long–just trying to correct a couple of off-base comments of my own, which I find embarrassing. To be clear–when I say in this ABSOLUTELY NEXT-TO-LAST comment above that “this isn’t nutty but is …nevertheless … wrong and … dangerous” I am referring to Brenner as I now see him following Louis’s useful corrective and not to Louis’s position re Brenner, which I agree with as far as I understand it. END STOP FINAL

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — April 13, 2018 @ 3:53 pm

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