Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 13, 2016

The Real Rebels

Filed under: American civil war — louisproyect @ 12:51 pm

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Mark Lause

Mark Lause is a Professor of History at the University of Cincinnati. Author of 10 books, including most recently Free Labor The Civil War and the Making of an American Working Class, published in 2015 by the University of Illinois Press and Free Spirits: Spiritualism, Republicanism, Radicalism published in 2016 by University of Illinois Press.

View all posts by Mark Lause »

I can feel a certain sympathy for people who get hoodwinked into fighting for a Lost Cause that could never be worthy of the blood and treasure spent on its behalf. After all, as a child of the Cold War, my own closest brush with toting a gun to war came during Vietnam. In that conflict, the government, both political parties, the military, the media, the universities, the corporations, and the entire power structure insisted that the triumph of a Vietnamese effort to control of their own country would start toppling dominoes that would end in Anytown, U.S.A. By the end, most Americans actually doubted this. In hindsight, there’s no real issue as to whether the power structure of the people were correct, though some feel obligated to pretend otherwise.

Free State of Jones, by Victoria Bynum
Free State of Jones, by Victoria Bynum

Responses to the Free State of Jones by Gary Ross, and starring Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and Mahershala Ali demonstrate that such denials of experience can last a long time. The movie offers a fictionalized version of the revolt of poor Southerners against the Confederacy in Jones County, Mississippi. Newton Knight worked on medical duties at the front until his disgust with the war inspired his desertion and return home. “Captain” Knight held that title for his role as the leader of guerilla forces that successfully made parts of southern Mississippi a no-go zone for Confederate tax gatherers and conscript officers. It is based on Victoria E. Bynum’s superb historical account The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), and aims to be much more truthful than Hollywood’s first attempt at the subject in 1948, Tap Roots.

Free State of Jones directly confronts the issues of class and race that Tap Roots downplayed or avoided. This fact, in part, explains the mixed reviews.

A movie is not a documentary, of course. The page dedicated to Free State of Jones at “History vs. Hollywood” provides a useful corrective, and I would urge everybody who liked the movie to read Bynum’s book.

The set battle scenes (including civilians employing a battery against trained troops) provide an emotionally gratifying and crowd-pleasing symbol of the triumph of enthusiastic victory over tyranny. In reality, the success of the revolt in Jones reflected the weakness of the Confederate authorities as much as the bravery and determination of those rebelling against them. Too, the love story between Knight and the slave Rachel or the depicted fraternization among black and white victims of the Confederacy is, of necessity, a matter of guesswork, but its presentation in the film rings true.

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June 28, 2016

The Free State of Jones

Filed under: American civil war,Film,racism — louisproyect @ 10:25 pm

Like last year’s “Trumbo”, “The Free State of Jones” is guaranteed to earn my vote for best film of 2016 for its combination of film-making genius and political commitment. If “Trumbo” might have been a success with someone other than Bryan Cranston in the title role, it was his presence that made you feel like you were watching the legendary screenwriter himself rather than an actor. Matthew McConaughey elevates “The Free State of Jones” in the same way. Present in every scene, he is utterly convincing as the anti-secessionist guerrilla leader who was the walking embodiment of what Noel Ignatiev called the Race Traitor.

Written and directed by Gary Ross, “The Free State of Jones” is everything that the overhyped “12 Years a Slave” and “Django Unchained” were not. It is an honest attempt to engage with the historical period it portrays even if it takes liberties with the events surrounding the rebellion of Newton Knight. As I will point out later in this article, they made for a more powerful film with a singular vision even if the truth was sacrificed.

After covering the film, I will discuss the actual historical record contained in Victoria Bynum’s “The Free State of Jones”, upon which the film was based. While hardly a film to be taken seriously, I will also say a few things about “Tap Roots”, the 1948 film based on Mississippi journalist James Street’s novel of the same title that was a loose adaptation of the Newton Knight story. The film is entirely forgettable if not unbearable, as well as a symbol of Hollywood’s racism, even when it decided to make a film based on ostensibly anti-racist material.

We first meet Newton Knight in a bloody battle that is about as graphic as any Hollywood film I have seen since “Saving Private Ryan”. Serving as a medic, Knight is overwhelmed by the severed limbs and ruptured abdomens that are beyond any doctor’s ability to treat. When the battle subsides, he meets up with men from Jones County who have ended up in the same regiment as him, a common feature of the bond of geography and ideology in both North and South.

When Knight learns that soldiers who own “20 Negros” are being sent home to look after their properties, he is in disbelief. Like most men from Jones County, he owned nothing but the log cabin he lived in and the hogs and corn field he looked after. They were yeoman farmers with almost no class interest in dying on behalf of the plantation owners who seceded from the Union. As the cry went up from the guerrilla movement, they saw it as a “Rich Man’s War and a Poor Man’s Fight”.

When a conscripted teenaged nephew is soon killed in another battle, he resolves to take the dead body back to Jones County where he can get a proper burial even if this means being charged with desertion.

Back on native ground, Knight soon becomes a target of local Confederate law enforcement for both being a deserter and interceding on behalf of neighbors who have been forced to turn over corn and pigs to the army as part of a hated wartime tax. When they pursue him with bloodhounds, he manages to find refuge in the swamp with a band of runaway slaves. He is led to them by a slave named Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who eventually becomes both his lover and a spy for the pro-Union armed struggle Knight will lead.

As the class conflict between poor farmers and armed Confederate tax-in-kind agents deepens, Knight decides that the only recourse is to build a popular resistance based in the swamp that the enemy’s horses cannot negotiate. Once they settle in, their headquarters becomes a staging ground for raids on the Confederate troops and the slave-owners whose interests they protect. It also becomes a place where their yeoman values are implemented in a kind of rough-hewn commune. Runaway slaves are treated as equals and when they are not, Newton Knight steps in to defend them against racism.

Seen in terms of genre, “The Free State of Jones” follows in the footsteps of “The Adventures of Robin Hood”, the 1938 vehicle for Errol Flynn, and the more recent “Braveheart”. When it comes to battles between yeoman farmers and an oppressive, bloodsucking elite, it is natural to cheer for the underdog. The Sheriff of Nottingham to Newton Knight’s Robin Hood is one Lieutenant Barbour who views the pro-Union guerrillas as the lowest scum on earth, particularly as race traitors. Another villain is James Eakins, the plantation owner who beats Rachel for the offense of eavesdropping on his daughters’ spelling lessons. Her only desire is to become literate, a crime in the eyes of the Mississippi slave masters.

The film tracks the battles between Knight’s militia and Confederate troops sent in to smash them and restore law and order in Jones County. Before each battle, Knight rallies the troops in speeches that are a mixture of scripture and Jeffersonian yeoman values. His commitment to racial and social equality continues even after the Civil War is over. He takes the side of former slaves as they exercise their right to vote even after it becomes obvious that the South will remain as oppressive as ever. His only recourse is to live among people, both Black and white, who share his values in the outskirts of the village of Soso in Jones County. If Mississippi and the USA for that matter choose segregation, he persists in building counter-institutions that correspond to his democratic and anti-racist values including the right of people to love each other whatever the color of their skin.

As a subplot that is thematically related but historically problematic, we see crosscuts to the trial of Davis Knight in 1948. He was the great-grandson of Newton Knight who was charged with violating the Mississippi’s anti-miscegenation laws. Not only is he a symbol of the ongoing fight against racism but a reminder that the Deep South was a deeply segregated place until recently. If Jim Crow disappeared in the 1960s, you cannot help but be reminded of the more recent period when cops can act like the KKK wearing a badge.

Before becoming a film-maker, Gary Ross worked on the presidential campaigns of Ted Kennedy, Michael Dukakis and Bill Clinton. One might assume that there is a connection between his 2012 “The Hunger Games” and his most recent film, since both include protagonists taking on evil plutocrats. As it happens, the new film is based on American history even if Ross takes liberties.

Ross probably was conscious of rewriting a history that he was intimately familiar with. In an interview with Slashfilm, he describes his engagement with the Civil War scholarship:

It was a tremendous amount of research. I don’t think I did anything but read for a couple of years. And I mean scores of books. I was a visiting fellow at Harvard for a couple of years. I studied under the tutelage of a professor there named John Stauffer, who was head of the American Civilization Department. I spent a lot of time in Jones County visiting it and meeting the local people and getting the local flavor and doing kind of a visceral history.

He even understood that a version of the traditional happy ending for “The Free State of Jones” would have been a much worse falsification of history than any liberties he took with the events described in the film:

Well, you know, that version would have been the white savior movie. That version would have been, “Oh, there’s a triumphant victory, and everything is fine,” and we tie it up with a Hollywood bow and there’s a happy ending. But we all know there wasn’t a happy ending. No sooner was technical emancipation granted than the former Confederates got their land and their power back and began passing laws which were called The Black Codes that were a form of re-enslavement and driving people back to the plantation, driving freed men back to the plantation.

If Victoria Bynum’s “The Free State of Jones” is a benchmark for the film’s veracity, it gets high marks in many ways. First and foremost, it describes the social conditions of the county’s yeoman farmers accurately. These were people who relied heavily on the animals they raised and the corn they used to feed them, without which they faced certain ruin. Ross creates a world in his film that evokes the Piney Woods region of Mississippi that was inhospitable to cotton growing and as such made the rise of an agrarian bourgeoisie impossible.

Who were these remarkable people who went against the values of the slave-owners? Considering the stereotypical view of white Southerners that persists to this day, Gary Ross deserves to be honored for telling the kind of story that was not even found in Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States”. The name of Newton Knight does not appear at all.

The Knight family came from North Carolina, where they were small farmers and forced to seek new land in the deep south after tobacco plantations gobbled up most of the available land. Their ancestors were members of the Regulator Movement that was one of the first armed resistances to British rule in the colonies. Suffering from onerous taxation, they took up arms against the wealthy. In other words, it was exactly the kind of fight they would pursue decades later in Mississippi.

While it is probably unreadable, Jimmy Carter wrote a historical novel titled “The Hornet’s Nest” that was a tribute to the Regulator Movement. The NY Times reviewed it in 2003:

”The Hornet’s Nest,” according to the book’s acknowledgments, was seven years in the making. And its somewhat sensational title refers not to Washington or Congress or even Camp David, but instead to an obscure and ferocious enclave of northern Georgia partisans and militiamen in the Revolutionary War, a guerrilla-like group to which, in his recent memoir, ”An Hour Before Daylight,” Carter says several of his ancestors belonged.

Another important element in the film that is consistent with Bynum’s book is the prominent role played by women as auxiliary fighters in Jones County. In one dramatic highlight, Newton Knight arms a mother and her two young daughters and steels their nerves to hold off a band of Confederate soldiers who come to their farm to carry off livestock and crops.

From the point of view of law and order in Jones County, the women were as much of a threat as the men especially Rachel, who was a fighter for Black emancipation as well as Newton Knight’s lover. Where Gary Ross took considerable liberties was making her the slave of the aforementioned villainous James Eakins whereas in fact she was actually his grandfather Jackie Knight’s slave. Despite his connections to the Regulator Movement, Jackie Knight had no problems adopting the mode of production that made the white race ready to fight for its survival. While by no means as wealthy as the big agrarian bourgeoisie, Jackie Knight had left yeomanry long behind him.

Another liberty taken with historical accuracy was the portrayal of Davis Knight as willing to go to prison for the love of his life. In reality, Davis Knight was interested in one thing and one thing only, to establish his white identity. Given the hell of Mississippi segregation, his decision was understandable.

What is more difficult to understand is the effort of Newton Knight’s ancestors to portray him as indifferent to Black lives and—worse—a common brigand. His son Thomas wrote a book titled “The Life and Activities of Captain Newton Knight” that embraced his Unionist stand but said nothing about his close ties to African-Americans. His grandniece Ethel Knight went much further. In 1951 she published “The Echo of the Black Horn”, a violent screed that accused him of being a thieving traitor to the glorious Confederate cause. Above all, she hated him for loving Rachel Knight—the act of a race traitor.

Unlike John Brown, Newton Knight was not an abolitionist prophet. His main grievance was effectively “taxation without representation” since he regarded the Confederacy as illegal. Would he have had a different attitude if he had been a man of property? Maybe so. At least he should be given credit for putting his life on the line for the principles that the Republic stood for, even if the Constitution regarded Blacks as only three-fifths of a man.

Ultimately the salient message of “The Free State of Jones” is that class trumps race. In the left’s perpetual engagement with the central conundrum of American politics, there is a tendency to lose track of what motivates whites to make common cause with Blacks. One of the most important points made in Victoria Bynum’s book is the importance of class during the Civil War for the people of Jones County that continued into the 20th century.

Abandoned by the Republican Party after the end of Reconstruction, the pro-Unionist yeoman farmers of Jones County were naturally drawn to the Populist Party that essentially reflected their class interests. In 1892 20 percent of Jones County voters cast their ballot for James Weaver, the Populist Party’s presidential candidate.

The most prominent leaders of the party in Jones County were the sons of Jasper and Riley Collins, two of Newton Knight’s leading lieutenants. At the statewide convention in 1895, they were elected delegates from Jones County. The racist Democratic Party press assailed the Populists as “disgruntled and disappointed office seekers” who hoped to seduce “Republicans and negroes” into voting for its candidates. It also identified them with Radical Republicanism during Reconstruction and warned that “the bottom rail will never be on top again in Mississippi.”

Like Thomas and Ethel Knight, the Populists eventually succumbed to racist pressures and abandoned their natural allies. As a sign of the confused politics of the Deep South, poor farmers voted for a bigot like Theodore Bilbo who backed progressive economic measures with racist invective.

James Street was a native Mississippian who grew up near Jones County and hated racial injustice but valued his Southern heritage. As such, it was natural for him to explore the Newton Knight story and turn it into a novel loosely based on his exploits. Wikipedia has a highly revealing story on his most unusual death:

Street died of a heart attack in Chapel Hill, N.C., on September 28, 1954, at age 50.

He was in Chapel Hill to present awards for excellence in radio broadcasting at a banquet, for which the main speaker was a “Reporter From the Pentagon” (as described by Scott Jarrad, a radio journalist who was to receive an award, who did not give the man’s name). According to Jarrad, the “Reporter from the Pentagon” made a pure power politics argument in favor of preventive war against the Communist nations. Street, who was to present the awards, speaking after that main address, vehemently attacked the position put forward by the “Reporter from the Pentagon,” in a spontaneous rant Jarrad described as “an explosion,” laced with mild profanity; “in a word, he was magnificent.”

Following that rant, however, again according to Jarrad, Street presented the broadcasting awards warmly and politely. Jarrad specifically mentioned the firm and affectionate handshake from Street at the presentation of the award. However, shortly after the ceremony, Street “laid his head on the table like a baby,” dead of a fatal heart attack. Jarrad speculated that the “explosion” of Street’s vehement rant may have been the stress that caused his fatal heart attack.

I can only say that I am surprised that “Tap Roots”, the 1948 film based on his fictionalized account of Knight’s pro-Union guerrilla warfare, didn’t do him in four years earlier.

This was a film that said virtually nothing about the pro-Union sympathies of the Jones County fighters. It revolved around the futile campaign of a plantation owner named Hoab Dabney to disaffiliate from the Confederacy because the people of Lebanon Valley only sought to work in peace. Dabney is played by Ward Bond, a vicious McCarthyite. When the Confederate cavalry annihilates his followers, a Whig newspaper man played by Van Heflin who fought on his side denounces him as a trouble-maker who misled his followers into a useless rebellion. In one of the odder scenes in this very odd movie, Dabney wanders about the battlefield talking to himself after the fashion of King Lear.

The screenplay was written by Alan Le May, the author of “The Searchers” that was adapted for John Ford’s classic film. The sheer stupidity and bad politics of this  film makes you wonder if “The Searchers” has been overrated, as I have long suspected.

Let me conclude with an excerpt from Victoria Bynum’s take on “Tap Roots”, which is contained on her invaluable website Renegade South.

The movie makers treated viewers to a sort of poor man’s Gone with the Wind—except that Hoab Dabney himself (the cinematic version of Newt Knight) appeared as anything but poor, living in his recently-departed father’s opulent mansion with slaves that he apparently inherited from dad! Never mind that neither the real Newt Knight—nor his father—owned slaves. I had to laugh, though, when Hoab Dabney first appeared on screen. Veteran actor Ward Bond appears as a wealthy, middle-aged Hoab, complete with mutton-chop sideburns, a crisp white shirt, black vest and cravat, and sporting a gold watch chain that hangs fetchingly across his portly mid-section!

Let’s just say that Ward Bond is no Matthew McConaughey. . . .

What were Tap Roots’ filmmakers thinking, you ask? They were thinking of Gone with the Wind, that’s what. Never mind that that wildly successful movie was dedicated to the principles of Lost Cause history, with its images of a solid white South and happy slaves. The plot lines, clichés, and characters of Gone with the Wind were shamelessly borrowed, but with a twist—and it’s only a twist—of Southern white opposition to secession from the Union. There is no people’s movement here—only the Dabneys’ assertion of their “freedoms” and dominion over their beloved Lebanon Valley. The men who join the provincial, hardheaded Dabneys in asserting their individual prerogative to remain “neutral” during the war display no agency and no ideas; they merely follow. Although the phrase, “rich man’s war and poor man’s fight,” is briefly flashed on the screen, it has no relevance to the story presented.

October 3, 2012

The Strange Career of Eugene Genovese

Filed under: American civil war,conservatism,racism,transition debate — louisproyect @ 5:31 pm

Eugene Genovese, who died last week, was one of only two major Marxist academics prominent in the 1960s to become a reactionary ideologue. The other was Ronald Radosh, who has opined in recent years that it was all for the best that fascism triumphed in Spain. For his part, Genovese became infamous for becoming a reactionary in the mold of the “Southern Agrarians” of the 1930s, a group of poets and novelists that included Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, and John Crowe Ransom.

Scott McLemee, a long-time observer of the peregrinations of the academic left, wrote a review of Radosh’s memoir “Commies” that got under his skin. An excerpt should explain why:

In the 1970s, Radosh had made an uneasy alliance with socialist intellectuals such as Irving Howe and Michael Harrington — former protégés of Max Shachtman, men quite capable of holding their own in a political argument. (The Marxist god of History had given them that, mainly, to do.) They saw the radical project in America as a matter of pushing liberal democracy as hard as possible rather than replacing it with some streamlined authoritarian regime. This circle had no illusions about the innocence of the Rosenbergs. But from Commies it is clear that they always harbored serious misgivings about Radosh himself. No doubt they suspected that habits of thought cultivated while rationalizing brutal regimes of one sort are really very helpful when one shifts allegiance to thugs of a different political complexion.

If so, their misgivings were borne out. Radosh soon became a champion of the terrorist Contras in Nicaragua, cheering them as a genuine army of the people. More recently, in the course of research on the Spanish Civil War, he has discovered the virtues of General Franco — a fascist dictator, yes, but at least no communist.

At this point, it would be routine to cite the Cold War anthology The God That Failed (1950) — perhaps with a sneer, which is the preferred attitude toward the book adopted by soi-disant leftists who have never actually read it. But there is really very little resemblance between Commies and the essays of ex-communists such as Arthur Koestler or Richard Wright. Something is missing: the element of soul-searching.

Nothing in Radosh’s memoir conveys the painful ordeal of disillusionment, in the strong sense: an ordeal, a crisis in which one faces not only the morally repulsive consequences of beliefs and actions but also the qualities of willful self-deception and ideologically compulsory blindness that have sustained one’s previous commitments.

Instead, we get a chronicle of complaints and alibis. It is a commonplace that leftist dogma can be a way to avoid unpleasant realities about oneself. Commies makes a pioneering and rather daring use of right-wing rhetoric for the same end. When Radosh’s first (and by his own account quite miserable) marriage finally disintegrates, this is because his wife was influenced by the women’s movement. A few pages later, he finds himself having sex with an alcoholic girlfriend on top of Mount Rushmore. “I now don’t understand why or even how I did such things,” he writes. “Perhaps it was the cumulative effect of too much marijuana.” So much for personal responsibility. It was all the Zeitgeist’s fault.

Given his combination of erudition and mocking condescension, one might only hope that McLemee might be inspired to say something about Genovese’s passing. Yes, sports fans, it is all there in the latest edition of Inside Higher Education, where our intrepid public intellectual has at it:

As for the term “renegade,” well… The author of the most influential body of Marxist historiography in the United States from the past half-century turned into one more curmudgeon denouncing “the race, class, gender swindle.” And at a meeting of the Conservative Political Action Committee, no less. The scholar who did path-breaking work on the political culture of the antebellum South — developing a Gramscian analysis of how slaves and masters understood one another, at a time when Gramsci himself was little more than an intriguing rumor within the American left – ended up referring to the events of 1861-65 as “the War of Southern Independence.”

Harsher words might apply, but “renegade” will do.

A couple of professor emerituses (emeriti?) on the Marxism list who remain renegades from capitalism and who were familiar with Genovese from the good old days weighed in shortly after his death was announced. Michael A. Lebowitz, who was editor of “Studies on the Left” from 1961 to 1965, said:

I thought he died a long time ago. He started out quite differently politically than he ended up. He was an editor of Science & Society, Studies on the Left, and the editor [I don’t recall his nom de guerre] of the Marxist-Leninist Quarterly, the short-lived theoretical journal of Progressive Labor. He was a Marxist at that time [although one with a curious respect for the aristocracy], thought the university was the vehicle for the revolution and thus was horrified at the actions of students at Sir George Williams [now part of Concordia University in Montreal] against racism, denounced them and never looked back on his march to the right.

This led Jesse Lemisch, another veteran of left academia, to contribute this addendum: “Gene’s remark on the West Indian students at Sir George: ‘every once in a while some grit gets into the machine of the left, and must be wiped out.’”

I had more than a casual interest in Eugene Genovese since he was seen as one of the primary exponents of the view that slavery was not a capitalist institution, an analysis that Charles Post took great pains to distinguish himself from when he began applying the Brenner thesis to the civil war. For those of you who have not been following the academic left, the Brenner thesis falls within the purview of what has been called “the transition debate”, something that had its origins in a series of exchanges between Maurice Dobb and Paul Sweezy in the 1950s. It revolves around the question of how feudalism gave way to capitalism, with those in the Sweezy tradition arguing that slavery belongs to the capitalist stage because of its role in commodity production.

Genovese had some debates around the nature of slavery but not with Brennerites, to my knowledge. Mostly he was anxious to refute the findings of Stanley Engerman and Robert Fogel, the authors of “Time on the Cross”, a book that made the case that slavery was capitalist but not from a Marxist standpoint. Mostly Engerman and Fogel looked at the plantation in terms of how it matched up against the factory system of the north using conventional microeconomics. Oddly enough, they concluded that the slaves had it better off than the factory workers, dovetailing with Genovese’s paternalistic take on master-slave relations despite their theoretical differences.

In a multi-part critique of Charles Post’s writings on the civil war that I wrote 9 years ago, I started with a discussion of the Genovese/Engerman-Fogel debate that in large part is reproduced below:

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.”

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