Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 10, 2020

Project 1619 and its detractors

Filed under: Counterpunch,slavery — louisproyect @ 2:14 pm

Sean Wilentz, pal of Bill and Hillary Clinton, in a united front with World Socialist Web Site

COUNTERPUNCH, JANUARY 10, 2020

Last August, the New York Times Sunday Magazine devoted an entire issue to Project 1619, an attempt to root today’s racism in the institution of slavery dating back to the seventeenth century. In 1619, British colonists in Point Comfort, Virginia bought twenty African slaves from Portuguese traders who had landed there, fresh from a body-snatching expedition. Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote the introduction to ten articles in the magazine that focused on different aspects of Black oppression, such as Traymaine Lee’s on the wealth gap between black and white Americans.

Four months later, five prominent historians of the Civil War signed a letter demanding that the newspaper correct “errors” and “distortions” in Project 1619. Rumor has it that Princeton professor Sean Wilentz wrote the letter and lined up four others to co-sign: Victoria Bynum, James M. McPherson, James Oakes, and Gordon S. Wood. I would only add that Bynum wrote a book that chronicled the armed resistance to wealthy slave-owners by poor white southerners and served as a consultant for the inspiring movie “The Free State of Jones”.

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December 24, 2019

Behind the attack on New York Times Project 1619

Filed under: racism,slavery — louisproyect @ 10:16 pm

Last August, the NY Times Sunday Magazine was entirely devoted to Project 1619, an attempt to root the racism of today in the institution of slavery that dates back to 1619, when more than 20 slaves were sold to the British colonists in Virginia. This hypothesis in itself might have not touched off the controversy surrounding the project. Instead, it was another claim that the American Revolution of 1776 was a reactionary rebellion to preserve slavery that probably set the gears in motion that led to an open letter from five prestigious historians to the NY Times that concluded:

We ask that The Times, according to its own high standards of accuracy and truth, issue prominent corrections of all the errors and distortions presented in The 1619 Project. We also ask for the removal of these mistakes from any materials destined for use in schools, as well as in all further publications, including books bearing the name of The New York Times. We ask finally that The Times reveal fully the process through which the historical materials were and continue to be assembled, checked and authenticated.

The letter was written by Sean Wilentz and signed by him and four others: Victoria Bynum, James M. McPherson, James Oakes, and Gordon S. Wood. All are white with an average age of 71.

It is highly likely that the Socialist Equality Party (SEP) that publishes the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) helped organize this campaign since all of the historians, except Wilentz, have granted interviews to it about their objections to Project 1619. It is even more likely that SEP member Tom Mackaman led this effort since he is a professor at King’s College in Pennsylvania and might have used his academic status to persuade them to take a stand. McPherson probably didn’t need much persuasion since his contacts with WSWS go back to 1999. It is not clear how much contact WSWS had with Sean Wilentz since his liberal Democratic Party politics might have made him much less amenable to any joint project with a bunch of sectarian lunatics.

At any rate, others have connected the dotted lines, including the Wall Street Journal that summed up the conflict a week ago:

So wrong in so many ways” is how Gordon Wood, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of the American Revolution, characterized the New York Times’s “1619 Project.” James McPherson, dean of Civil War historians and another Pulitzer winner, said the Times presented an “unbalanced, one-sided account” that “left most of the history out.” Even more surprising than the criticism from these generally liberal historians was where the interviews appeared: on the World Socialist Web Site, run by the Trotskyist Socialist Equality Party.

The “1619 Project” was launched in August with a 100-page spread in the Times’s Sunday magazine. It intends to “reframe the country’s history” by crossing out 1776 as America’s founding date and substituting 1619, the year 20 or so African slaves were brought to Jamestown, Va. The project has been celebrated up and down the liberal establishment, praised by Sen. Kamala Harris and Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

A September essay for the World Socialist Web Site called the project a “racialist falsification” of history. That didn’t get much attention, but in November the interviews with the historians went viral. “I wish my books would have this kind of reaction,” Mr. Wood says in an email. “It still strikes me as amazing why the NY Times would put its authority behind a project that has such weak scholarly support.” He adds that fellow historians have privately expressed their agreement. Mr. McPherson coolly describes the project’s “implicit position that there have never been any good white people, thereby ignoring white radicals and even liberals who have supported racial equality.”

The project’s creator, Nikole Hannah-Jones, is proud that it “decenters whiteness” and disdains its critics as “old, white male historians.” She tweeted of Mr. McPherson: “Who considers him preeminent? I don’t.” Her own qualifications are an undergraduate degree in history and African-American studies and a master’s in journalism. She says the project goes beyond Mr. McPherson’s expertise, the Civil War. “For the most part,” she writes in its lead essay, “black Americans fought back alone” against racism. No wonder she’d rather not talk about the Civil War.

To the Trotskyists, Ms. Hannah-Jones writes: “You all have truly revealed yourselves for the anti-black folks you really are.” She calls them “white men claiming to be socialists.” Perhaps they’re guilty of being white men, but they’re definitely socialists. Their faction, called the Workers League until 1995, was “one of the most strident and rigid Marxist groups in America” during the Cold War, says Harvey Klehr, a leading historian of American communism.

“Ours is not a patriotic, flag-waving kind of perspective,” says Thomas Mackaman, the World Socialist Web Site’s interviewer and a history professor at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. He simply recognizes that the arrival of 20 slaves in 1619 wasn’t a “world-altering event.” Slavery had existed across the world for millennia, and there were already slaves elsewhere in what would become the U.S. before 1619.

So, Mackaman says that the arrival of 20 slaves in 1619 was no big deal since “Slavery had existed across the world for millennia, and there were already slaves elsewhere in what would become the U.S. before 1619.” Odd that Mackaman, the big-time Marxist scholar, can’t distinguish between pre-capitalist and capitalist slavery. Yes, there were slaves in 1619 but being one in the Ottoman Empire was not the same thing as picking cotton. The Janissaries, who were slaves, were also the Sultan’s elite troops, paid regular salaries, and eventually became part of the ruling class.

If the WSWS was defending Marxism by going on the attack against Project 1619, that didn’t seem to bother the Washington Examiner’s Michael Barone who was pleased to hear James McPherson deny that racism was a permanent condition. This is the same Barone who wrote “How Genetic Science Is Undercutting the Case for Racial Quotas” for the Washington Examiner on April 4, 2018. Somehow, the belief in genetic inferiority does not seem consistent with racism not being a permanent condition but I’ll let the dialectical geniuses at WSWS sort that out.

In addition to the Trump-supporting Washington Examiner, Wilentz and company got thumbs up from the City-Journal, the voice of the neoconservative Manhattan Institute, the National Review, and New Criterion, a high-falutin’ journal that once awarded a prize to Charles Murray, best-known for his Bell-Curve theory that finds Blacks genetically inferior.

Most of the fury from the WSWS and its academic allies is directed at an introductory article written by Nikole Hannah-Jones, an African-American staff writer for the NYT Sunday Magazine and the recipient of a Polk Award for her reports on NPR Radio. This paragraph must have made Sean Wilentz’s hair catch fire:

Conveniently left out of our founding mythology is the fact that one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery. By 1776, Britain had grown deeply conflicted over its role in the barbaric institution that had reshaped the Western Hemisphere. In London, there were growing calls to abolish the slave trade. This would have upended the economy of the colonies, in both the North and the South. The wealth and prominence that allowed Jefferson, at just 33, and the other founding fathers to believe they could successfully break off from one of the mightiest empires in the world came from the dizzying profits generated by chattel slavery. In other words, we may never have revolted against Britain if the founders had not understood that slavery empowered them to do so; nor if they had not believed that independence was required in order to ensure that slavery would continue. It is not incidental that 10 of this nation’s first 12 presidents were enslavers, and some might argue that this nation was founded not as a democracy but as a slavocracy.

From all the sparks this debate has generated, it is important to recognize that it did not start with her article. To some extent, it reflects both a generational and racial divide with both younger and Black scholars less willing to believe in the purity of our Founding Fathers. The overwhelming majority of the Project 1619 authors were African-American. All the white ones were young.

You can see the generational conflict at work in the June 6th NY Review of Books take-down of Sean Wilentz’s latest book titled “No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding” (unfortunately behind a paywall; contact me for a copy). Written by Nicholas Guyatt, it reflects the skepticism of younger scholars about the democratic pretensions of Jefferson, et al. It also puts Wilentz’s reverence for the US Constitution into a political context:

So why is Wilentz so interested in a form of antislavery originalism? The answer, I think, lies in politics rather than history. No Property in Man began as a series of lectures at Harvard in 2015. That year, Wilentz got into a spat with Bernie Sanders after the presidential candidate told an audience in Virginia that the United States “in many ways was created…on racist principles.” Wilentz, in a New York Times Op-Ed, dismissed “the myth that the United States was founded on racial slavery” and accused Sanders of “poison[ing] the current presidential campaign.” To describe the Founding as racist was, Wilentz wrote, to perpetuate “one of the most destructive falsehoods in all of American history.”

Wilentz has long been a liberal activist. For more than a quarter-century, he faithfully supported Bill and Hillary Clinton. During the Lewinsky scandal in 1998, he warned Congress that “history will track you down and condemn you for your cravenness” if Bill Clinton was impeached. In a 2008 editorial in The New Republic, he accused Barack Obama and his campaign team of keeping “the race and race-baiter cards near the top of their campaign deck” during their battle with Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. He has been a particularly sharp critic of those who’ve rallied behind candidates to the left of the Clintons. In a recent article lamenting the Sanders phenomenon, Wilentz accused the left of being irresponsible in its economic promises, solipsistic in its embrace of identity politics, and disrespectful toward the achievements of the liberal tradition. Trashing the Founders is, for Wilentz, another sign of progressive immaturity.

Nicholas Guyatt is a 46-year old (that’s young to me!) British professor at the University of Cambridge who has a better grasp of American politics than you might expect. His latest book is titled “Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation”, which addresses the question why the Founding Fathers failed to include blacks and Indians in their cherished proposition that “all men are created equal”? The usual answer is racism, but the reality, according to the Amazon.com blurb, is more complex and unsettling. Namely, “Unable to convince others-and themselves-that racial mixing was viable, white reformers began instead to claim that people of color could only thrive in separate republics: in Native states in the American West or in the West African colony of Liberia.” Some of you might recall that, as Hannah-Jones pointed out, Lincoln’s solution to the North-South conflict was sending slaves to Liberia.

This obviously is not the kind of analysis that sits well with Marxists and leftists who view 1776 as a paradigmatic bourgeois-democratic revolution. As Neil Davidson has pointed out, it is best to think of these revolutions only as bourgeois rather than bourgeois-democratic since in most instances the result was all about class domination rather than Enlightenment values.

Hannah-Jones’s article was not the only one that pissed off the WSWS and their historian allies. There’s also one by Matthew Desmond simply titled “Capitalism” that is based on the groundbreaking scholarship of Sven Beckert, Edward Baptist and Walter Johnson. They make the case that chattel slavery was a form of capitalist exploitation even though there’s very little in Marx’s Capital to buttress that analysis. It was only with the publication of Eric Williams’s “Capitalism and Slavery” that scholars began to reconsider these questions. While he has not lined up with WSWS on whether the Constitution sanctioned slavery, John Clegg informed Jacobin readers that Desmond was all wet in claiming that slavery “helped turn a poor fledgling nation into a financial colossus.” I will be working on a lengthy reply to Clegg but it is important to note that two of the historians who signed the open letter agree with him.

One of them was John Oakes, who in referring to this new scholarship,  takes the accusatory tone so characteristic of WSWS: “What you really have with this literature is a marriage of neo-liberalism and liberal guilt. When you marry those two things, neo-liberal politics and liberal guilt, this is what you get. You get the New York Times, you get the literature on slavery and capitalism.” I’m almost surprised that he didn’t use the term “pseudo-socialist” that is ubiquitous to this sectarian website. For Oakes, Desmond’s fatal flaw is moralism:

Desmond, following the lead of the scholars he’s citing, basically relies on the same analogy. They’re saying, “look at the ways capitalism is just like slavery, and that’s because capitalism came from slavery.” But there’s no actual critique of capitalism in any of it. They’re saying, “Oh my God! Slavery looks just like capitalism. They had highly developed management techniques just like we do!” Slaveholders were greedy, just like capitalists. Slavery was violent, just like our society is. So there’s a critique of violence and a critique of greed. But greed and violence are everywhere in human history, not just in capitalist societies. So there’s no actual critique of capitalism as such, at least as I read it.

This could not be further from the sort of detailed economic analysis Desmond puts forward in his article, such as this:

As slave labor camps spread throughout the South, production surged. By 1831, the country was delivering nearly half the world’s raw cotton crop, with 350 million pounds picked that year. Just four years later, it harvested 500 million pounds. Southern white elites grew rich, as did their counterparts in the North, who erected textile mills to form, in the words of the Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner, an “unhallowed alliance between the lords of the lash and the lords of the loom.” The large-scale cultivation of cotton hastened the invention of the factory, an institution that propelled the Industrial Revolution and changed the course of history. In 1810, there were 87,000 cotton spindles in America. Fifty years later, there were five million. Slavery, wrote one of its defenders in De Bow’s Review, a widely read agricultural magazine, was the “nursing mother of the prosperity of the North.” Cotton planters, millers and consumers were fashioning a new economy, one that was global in scope and required the movement of capital, labor and products across long distances. In other words, they were fashioning a capitalist economy. “The beating heart of this new system,” Beckert writes, “was slavery.”

The WSWS interviewer confessed to James McPherson, the other critic of the new scholarship on slavery and capitalism, that he finds it “problematic”. Certainly, McPherson must be as bothered as he was by their drawing “an equal sign between what they perceive to be a fully developed capitalist South, and the North.” That is a crude reduction of what Beckert, et al, have written, but just what you might expect from WSWS. McPherson’s response is rather feeble:

Yes, that’s right. That part of it—that the South is as capitalist as the North, or Great Britain—is unpersuasive to me. Certainly, they were part of a capitalist world order. There’s no question about that. Cotton and sugar were central. But the idea that the ideology of the planter class in the South was a capitalist ideology, there I’ve always been a little bit more on the side of Eugene Genovese, who sees the southern ideology as seigneurial.

I have no idea whether McPherson read Desmond’s article carefully but there is nothing about “ideology”, nor is there much to speak of about it in the scholarship of Beckert, et al. Instead, their books focus on commodity production for the marketplace that is central to Marxist theory, even if it is not premised on free wage labor.

Finally, there is the question of why people like Bynum, McPherson, Oakes and Wood would ever sit down with the likes of the SEP/WSWS. You can only conclude that they, like most academics, have a narrow focus on their own work and could not be more indifferent to the hundreds of articles on the WSWS website that have defended Assad from charges of war crimes and other such crypto-Stalinist rubbish. They also probably liked the attention they were getting from this sect that does have a talent for buttering up academics, at least those who are such babes in the wood.

One of the most reactionary elements of the SEP’s program is its characterization of the trade union movement in the USA as an obstacle to progress as if Scott Walker’s crushing of the public service unions in Wisconsin was no big deal. To get an idea of how demented these people are, they published an article this year calling attention to how the Christchurch, New Zealand white supremacist and mass murderer Brenton Tarrant praised trade unions in his 50-page manifesto as if this would warn off someone working in an Amazon warehouse from starting a union.

Unlike other groups on the left, the SEP does not participate in the living mass movement. Except for its website and the election campaigns they run from time to time, you will never run into them at planning meetings for a protest against fracking or police brutality. Its primary goal is to gin up traffic to its website as if reaching some target number of visits will hasten in the socialist revolution.

The main complaint that it has about Project 1619 is a familiar one, namely that it is based on identity politics rather than class. Although he did not sign the open letter, Adolph Reed was happy to sit down with these idiots, another sign of his political myopia. When WSWS asked him to comment on supposedly a dominant tendency in academia is to attribute all social problems to race, or to other forms of identity, he replied:

As Walter Benn Michaels said, and as I have said time and time again, if anti-disparitarianism is your ideology, then for you a society qualifies as being just if 1 percent of the population controls 90 percent of the wealth, so long as that within that 1 percent 12 percent or so are black, etc., reflecting their share of the national population. This is the ideal of social justice for neoliberalism. There’s no question of actual redistribution.

Like all the other people so ready to dismiss the contributors to this project as “neoliberal” or worse, Reed appears to have either only skimmed through the articles or not having read them at all. If he had read Trymaine Lee’s “The Wealth Gap”, he would have seen something complete different from blacks trying to use affirmative action to get a seat at the ruling class table. Showing little reverence toward the New Deal that has become fashionable during the growing popularity of Bernie Sanders, Lee writes:

The G.I. Bill is often hailed as one of Roosevelt’s most enduring legacies. It helped usher millions of working-class veterans through college and into new homes and the middle class. But it discriminatorily benefited white people. While the bill didn’t explicitly exclude black veterans, the way it was administered often did. The bill gave veterans access to mortgages with no down payments, but the Veterans Administration adopted the same racially restrictive policies as the Federal Housing Administration, which guaranteed bank loans only to developers who wouldn’t sell to black people. “The major way in which people have an opportunity to accumulate wealth is contingent on the wealth positions of their parents and their grandparents,” Darity says. “To the extent that blacks have the capacity to accumulate wealth, we have not had the ability to transfer the same kinds of resources across generations.”

Writing for The New Republic, where he has a monthly column, Reed assured his readers that “The New Deal Wasn’t Intrinsically Racist”. That’s some consolation to the children of those men and women who got screwed “accidentally”. Like most of the garbage Reed writes nowadays, it is an attempt to debunk the idea that American society is racist to the core. At the heart of all these historians’ special pleading for the Great American model is a refusal to come to terms with the reality, namely that it was a racist and imperialist genocidal monster that grows more rapacious with each passing year. It is not surprising that the Washington Examiner, The National Review, The City Journal and the New Criterion find the WSWS campaign amenable to their reactionary interests. Whenever I run across this special pleading for an idealized republic in which racial and other “identity” based demands are an obstacle to future progress, I am always reminded of what Leon Trotsky, the greatest Marxist thinker of the 20th century, told his comrades in 1933, when he was an exile living in Turkey:

But today the white workers in relation to the Negroes are the oppressors, scoundrels, who persecute the black and the yellow, hold them in contempt and lynch them. When the Negro workers today unite with their own petty bourgeois that is because they are not yet sufficiently developed to defend their elementary rights. To the workers in the Southern states the liberal demand for ‘social, political and economic equality’ would undoubtedly mean progress, but the demand for ‘self-determination’ a greater progress. However, with the slogan ‘social, political and economic equality’ they can much easier be misled (‘according to the law you have this equality’.

This is the attitude that revolutionaries should adopt when it comes to Project 1619. It is also the attitude that my friend Noah Ignatiev defended as a “race traitor”. For those who reject the “racial identity” politics of the NY Times-backed project simply because a bourgeois newspaper is behind it, I invite you to contact me for copies of the key articles. They are the real deal as opposed to the junk the WSWS is peddling.

August 24, 2018

Gerald Horne’s The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism: The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, and Capitalism in 17th Century North America and the Caribbean

Filed under: Counterpunch,slavery,transition debate — louisproyect @ 12:30 pm

I had high hopes for Gerald Horne’s The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism: The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, and Capitalism in 17th Century North America and the Caribbean for a couple of reasons. It might help me develop a deeper understanding of the genocidal tendencies of Dutch and British colonialism I reviewed in a CounterPunch article about the ethnic cleansing of Munsee Indians from New York State in the 17thcentury. While Horne’s history is focused on slavery, there are frequent allusions to what he calls the “indigenes” or native peoples. Just as importantly, I expected it to be in line with his provocatively titled “The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America” that was a timely debunking of our Founding Father myths. Turning the clock back a century, this time around Horne zeros in on the Glorious Revolution of 1688 that was glorious only to the slave-trading merchants of England and their colonial cohorts. For the indigenes or slaves who were victimized throughout the 17thcentury, there was no glory in being shot down by a musket.

My hopes were not only met, they were exceeded. Horne has written both a scholarly treatment enriched by primary sources excavated from archives three hundred years old but also a fierce polemic that hearkens back to those of CLR James and WEB Dubois. The end notes of “The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism” support some astonishing insights into the social reality of the emerging “revolutionary” North America. For example, in the penultimate chapter titled “The ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688” (scare quotes were never more appropriate), Horne refers to a French Protestant exile remarking in 1687 that “there is not a house in Boston however small be its means that has not one or two” enslaved Africans, and even some that have five or six. The endnote reveals that this report originated in Box 19 of the Daniel Parrish Slavery Transcripts in the New York Historical Society. There are hundreds of such notations in Horne’s book, which attest to his perseverance in making the cruelty of the 17thcentury palpable. To paraphrase Thomas Edison, scholarship is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. Buckets of sweat were probably accumulated in countless libraries and museums in the years it took to put together this groundbreaking text.

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August 20, 2018

Gerald Horne’s Seventeenth Century

Filed under: colonialism,slavery — louisproyect @ 4:11 pm

Midway through Gerald Horne’s “Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism”, I feel like I have struck gold. This history of the colonial projects of the 17th century gives me a better handle on questions that have preoccupied me over the years as the excerpt below indicates:

  1. The importance of the Caribbean islands in the period that might be described as mercantile capitalism. The only other historian who I have read who has zeroed in on this time and place was Sidney Mintz, whose study of sugar plantations made the case that these were the first modern factories even though based on forced labor.
  2. The tendency for these colonial powers to support emancipation for tactical reasons. Long before Lord Dunmore proclaimed the freedom of slaves in Virginia to help build an army opposed to George Washington, the same measures were being taken in the Caribbean islands a century earlier by the Dutch to be used against the British. As might be obvious from Horne’s last book that made the case that Washington et al were counter-revolutionaries, he rejects the bourgeois-democratic pretensions about 1776 that some on the left uphold, including it would seem the CPUSA that he reportedly belonged to or was at least a sympathizer of.
  3. The need to ethnically cleanse NY and New Jersey of the Delaware Indians, including the Munsees, in the 17th century. This was a necessary step to privatize land in the interests of petty commodity production leading up to capitalist property relations in the next century as I discussed in my article on the Munsees that appeared in CounterPunch.

Slave-based settler colonialism was an inherently unstable process, as the bonded labor force had little incentive to ally with their masters when foreigners invaded, providing the latter with incentive to overthrow the status quo. The Dutch were convinced that the Africans would act as a fifth column on their behalf: the Dutch may have heard that an African in Chile named himself “King of Guinea” and demanded vengeance against the settlers, which could have succeeded with Dutch aid. Thus, when Dutch forces invaded neighboring Peru in the 1620s, they brought along a chest full of manumission letters to hand out to the enslaved, along with weapons. Another contingent descended upon Pisco, where they sought to foment a slave revolt. As early as 1627, there was a fear in Virginia that there would be a replay of this stratagem by the Dutch. In the early stage of Dutch colonization in the Americas, race relations were lot always informed by racial hierarchy, providing an advantage over competitors not likeminded. Anti-Cromwell loyalists in Barbados were confident that the Dutch would back them, just as those who joined Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia in 1676—yet another landmark in the road to white supremacy and capitalism in North America—thought likewise: the French settlers who revolted in Martinique thought the same way in 1665. This meant that squashing colonial competitors was seen as important by London in seeking to prevent slave revolts. Since Caribbean islands were then seen as the embodiment of grand wealth, this argued further for building a grand navy, useful in squashing European rivals and revolts of the enslaved alike.

Throughout the 1640s the indigenous of the mainland, especially the Lenape and Minquas-Susquehannock of what is now called the Delaware Valley, had played the Dutch off against the Swedes, until the latter were driven out. The Dutch were not unique in this regard, and settlers perpetually had to account for the prospect of confronting shrewd Africans and indigenes backed by European rivals. U.S. Founding Father George Mason reminded his fellow rebels that Cromwell sent instructions to arm the enslaved in order to smash royalist rebellion in the seventeenth century—and this could happen again in the wake of 1776.

July 11, 2018

Andrew Zimmerman on Marx, Engels and Slavery

Filed under: Civil War,slavery — louisproyect @ 8:44 pm

Today I received the new collection of Marx and Engels’s writings on the Civil War from International Publishers. Although this book belongs in any collection of their books, I would say that the introduction by Andrew Zimmerman justifies the purchase all on its own. I have not heard of Zimmerman before but on the basis of the excerpt below, I plan to put him on my must-reading bucket list.

The excerpt resonates with a topic that I will be addressing in the next few days that has been prompted by various leftists on FB and Marxmail arguing that Marx and Lenin would vote for Democrats if they were alive today, just like the people writing for Jacobin and in the leadership of DSA. When I get around to a rebuttal of the three most common arguments along these lines, I will certainly consult Zimmerman’s introduction as well as the articles by Marx and Engels that illustrate his point that while they were very far-sighted on the Civil War, they still had a flawed interpretation.

Back in 2007, we had a CP’er or CP sympathizer on Marxmail who when challenged to identify an leading Marxist supporting a bourgeois politician, he referred to Karl Marx’s articles in praise of Abraham Lincoln. When I get around to writing my answer to this, I will bring up Marx’s support for Friedrich Sorge against Victoria Woodhull who in my view understood the flaws in official Marxism that Zimmerman alludes to below. She ran for president with Frederick Douglass as her running-mate. That Marx could have referred to Woodhull as a faker and instead endorsed the dreadful Sorge shows that he was just as capable of making mistakes as any other human being, including those today who view the Democratic Party as if it were some sort of social democratic party with distinctly American features. Baloney.

Andrew Zimmerman:

Marx and Engels recognized white supremacy as part of the slave system that lay at the root of the American Civil War, and noted also, especially in their discussions of Andrew Johnson, how racism limited the extent of emancipation after the war. Still, especially in their private correspondence, their own views of blacks sometimes limited their ability to analyze the Civil War. Perhaps the most jarring manifestation of this is their repeated use of the English racial epithet “nigger” in their private correspondence—nine times in the texts reproduced in this volume. They used this term ironically, however, to highlight a racism that they criticized rather than endorsed. Marx and Engels opposed racism at every turn, and the communist movements they inspired have remained some of the most powerful and consistent anti-racist and anti-imperialist forces in the world, including in the United States.

Still, Marx and Engels sometimes wrote as if the fight against slavery was primarily a white working-class struggle, with black workers and soldiers playing a vital, but only supporting, role. When Marx wrote in Capital that “Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded,” he connected the struggles of white and black workers, but also suggested that they were separate (document 108). When he called “slave revolution” the “last card up its [the Union’s] sleeve,” he attributes agency to the white Northern leadership who might play this card rather than to enslaved black workers themselves (document 10). When Marx remarked, in 1853, that US blacks who were born into slavery were not “freshly imported barbarians” from Africa but rather “a native product, more or less Yankeefied, English speaking, etc., and hence capable of being eman-cipated” (document 104), he did not only denigrate African cultures; he also blinded himself to the many African and African American political traditions that contributed to the defeat of slavery in the Americas.

Marx and Engels did grasp the American Civil War as a victorious workers’ struggle, but, unlike most Marxist analyses today, they overemphasized the importance of free white workers at the expense of enslaved black workers in this struggle. Marx and Engels rightly pointed to the many white American workers who fought on the side of Union, the white British workers who made British intervention on behalf of the Confederacy polit-ically impossible, and even to the working-class backgrounds of Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson. What they missed was the largest worker rebellion of all at the heart of the Union victory and the Civil War: the determination of great numbers of the four million enslaved black workers to withdraw their labor from their erstwhile masters, to transform fop war for the Union into a war against slavery, and to throw their collective intelligence, capacity for labor, and armed might behind the Union.

Marx and Engels were thus correct that the Civil War was a struggle of workers against slavery, although perhaps not precisely for the reasons they thought it was. Their comrades who served in the Union Army, however, worked with, and fought alongside, formerly enslaved African Americans and thus gained a better understanding of the importance of black workers in the conflict (see document 94). All this suggests that the fight against racism is not a matter of white people perfecting their own ‘1m-racist’ ideas hot rather develops through interracial political solidarity.

Regardless of these shortcomings, Marx and Engels did help lay the groundwork for one of the most, if not the most, important interpretations of the Civil War to date: W.E.B. Du Bois’s 1935 Black Reconstruction. In that work, Du Bois analyzed the southern slave as “the black worker” and portrayed the central drama in the Civil War as the “general strike” by which these black workers transformed the war between Union and Confederacy into a revolution against slavery. The capitalist outcome of Reconstruction Du Bois attributed to what he called a “counterrevolution of property.” Historians have only begun to give Du Bois’s interpretation of the Civil War and Reconstruction the credit it deserves. The essay by Du Bois that is the final text of this volume makes clear his critical appreciation of the writings of Marx and Engels on the Civil War.

 

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.

April 2, 2018

The dialectical relationship between the steam-engine and slavery

Filed under: slavery,transition debate — louisproyect @ 9:15 pm

James Watt’s steam-engine

In Historical Materialism (2013, 21.1), there’s a 53-page article by Andreas Malm titled “The Origins of Fossil Capital: From Water to Steam in the British Cotton Industry” that presents the same arguments found in his 2016 book “Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming”. In a nutshell, his main idea is that when England adopted coal-powered steam engines to run the machinery used to spin cotton into yarn, it was a decision that eventually led to the general usage of fossil fuel in manufacturing and thus climate change.

At first blush, this seems counter-intuitive since burning coal was more costly than the water wheel. After all, once you built one, the water was free while it cost money to pay the wages of miners who went into the ground to dig it up as well as the railroad trains that delivered it to the factory. Malm writes:

In 1786, the brothers Robinson erected the first rotative steam engine to drive machinery for spinning cotton in their Papplewick factory on the River Leen. But they soon became disappointed. In a complaint that would long haunt steam power, the brothers faulted the engine for excessively high fuel costs: coal commanded a price of up to 12 shillings, to be measured against the free running water of the Leen. Instead of pursuing steam further, they fell back on the natural supply of the river, augmented it with reservoirs, and continued to spin by water.’

Not only was the water-wheel cheaper, it was more powerful. James Watt’s steam engines typically were rated at 60 horsepower while the largest water-powered mills were 5 times more powerful. Furthermore, they were less prone to mechanical breakdown.

For the industrialists, the advantage of coal was that it could allow factories to be built anywhere there was abundant labor. Since rivers did not necessarily flow through heavily populated areas, it meant that hiring workers was more difficult. John McCullough, a leading bourgeois economist of the period put it this way: “But the invention of the steam-engine has relieved us from the necessity of building factories in inconvenient situations merely for the sake of a waterfall. It has allowed them to be placed in the centre of a population trained to industrious habit.”

Malm describes the hiring process that was so onerous to the profit-seeking class:

Recruitment and maintenance of a labour-force were the defining problems of the factory colony. When a manufacturer came across a powerful stream passing through a valley or around a river peninsula, chances were slim that he also hit upon a local population predisposed to factory labour: the opportunity to come and work at machines for long, regular hours, herded together under one roof and strictly supervised by a manager, appeared repugnant to most, and particularly in rural areas. Colonisers following in the steps of Arkwright frequently encountered implacable aversion to factory discipline among whatever farmers or independent artisans they could find. Instead, the majority of the operatives had to be imported from towns such as London, Manchester, Liverpool and Nottingham, requiring steady advertisement in the press as well as attractive cottages behind leafy trees, allotment gardens, milk-cows, sick- clubs and other perks to persuade the workers to come, and to stay.

Another problem was the occasional unreliability of water streams. When a river froze over, production stopped. Or in periods of drought, the water would be inadequate to rotate the mill. On the other hand, steam engines did not rely on such exigencies. A supply of coal could be depended on. Brought together, steam power, machinery and an ample supply of workers could ramp up the production that was necessary for British textiles to dominate the world markets. Showing his contempt for the bosses of yesteryear, Malm writes: “A perfectly docile, ductile, tractable labourer: the wettest dream of employers come true. Here were the reasons to glorify ‘the creator of six or eight million labourers, among whom the law will never have to suppress either combination or rioting’, in the words of François Arago, author of the first major biography of Watt.”

In some reviews, Malm’s valuable insights are linked to Political Marxism. For example, in the ISR, Bill Crane provides some background on the book:

Even such a pioneering and innovative study as Fossil Capital has its weak points. It is based on Malm’s doctoral dissertation, and its erudition in one specific area of social science can be difficult for readers (like myself) who do not share his background. Similarly, Malm draws deeply on several different schools of Marxist thought, including Robert Brenner and Ellen Wood’s historical interpretation of the rise of capitalism in England, the structuralist Marxism of Louis Althusser, and Henri Lefebvre’s work on capitalism’s production of space.

Meanwhile, Michael Robbins’s review in BookForum (behind a paywall) sums up the book’s argument about as succinctly as can be imagined as well as making the Political Marxism connection:

Malm is the author of Fossil Capital (2016), the best book written about the origins of global warming. Drawing on currents of political Marxism, Malm showed that British capitalists turned from hydropower to industrial coal-fired steam power in response to class struggle rather than, as mainstream views have it, because coal proved a cheaper or more efficient energy source. What steam power enabled was cheaper and more efficient control of labor. It also, as we now know, empowered capitalists to change the climate of the planet by releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (a process later exacerbated by petroleum-based industry).

Ironically, despite Malm’s connection to the Brenner school of Marxism, I find the connection between slavery and coal-based production compellingly obvious. If coal could make labor exploitation possible on an uninterrupted basis, so could slavery. Keep in mind the troubles that the American bourgeoisie had putting people to work in the fertile fields of the south.

American Indians were impossible to keep captive because they knew escape routes and native villages that would shelter them. Furthermore, Indians were still powerful enough militarily in the 1700s and early to mid-1800s to make subduing them anything but a cakewalk. Before slavery, indentured servitude was used to provide labor for tobacco, sugar and other cash crops before the demand for cotton soared. While an indentured servant was certainly capable of picking cotton, the contract was based on a fixed length so that eventually he or she could find other work or become yeoman farmers.

Slavery solved that problem just as steam power solved the labor supply problem in England. What difference does it make if one form of labor was based on a wage and the other by repression? The goal was to produce commodities, after all.

That is something that Karl Marx makes clear in V. 1 of Capital:

But as soon as peoples whose production still moves within the lower forms of slave-labour, the corvée, etc. are drawn into a world market dominated by the capitalist mode of production, whereby the sale of their products for export develops into their principal interest, the civilized horrors of over-work are grafted onto the barbaric horrors of slavery, serfdom etc. But in proportion as the export of cotton became of vital interest to those [southern] states [of the American Union], the over-working of the Negro, and sometimes the consumption of his life in seven years of labour, became a factor in a calculated and calculating system. It was no longer a question of obtaining from him a certain quantity of useful products, but rather of the production of surplus-value itself.

 

March 31, 2018

Thoughts on John Clegg’s “Capitalism and Slavery”

Filed under: slavery,transition debate — louisproyect @ 8:41 pm

John Clegg

Like Charles Post’s article in the latest Catalyst (behind a paywall), John Clegg’s “Capitalism and Slavery” that appeared in the Fall 2015  Critical Historical Studies criticizes the New Historians of Capitalism aka NHC (Edward Baptist, Walter Johnson, Sven Beckert, et al) from the standpoint of Political Marxism. However, unlike Post, Clegg maintains that slavery was capitalist, thus distancing himself from the more rigid schemas of Post and others in this camp. For Post, anything except free wage labor is “pre-capitalist”, a category that arguably begins with hunting and gathering societies and continues until the 15th century when purely contingent—or even “random” as Post put it–events led to the introduction of lease farming in England, which was the seed that led to the industrial revolution, Amazon.com and all the rest. As such, it might be considered in the same light as the asteroid that hit the Gulf of Mexico 66 millions of years ago. If the asteroid had missed Earth, we might be seeing Tyrannosaurus rex rather than Jeff Bezos running Amazon.

Both Post and Clegg fault the NHC for not being interested in defining capitalism, which is the hallmark of the Political Marxists no matter that Marx spent little time trying to define it himself. He was much more dedicated to explaining how the system took root and how it functions. And when he does refer to the origins of the system, he has quite a different outlook than Post’s: “The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.” If anybody can find a reference from Post, Brenner, Chibber or any other Political Marxist to this sentence or the chapter of Capital in which it appears, I will donate $100 to their favorite leftist cause.

The purpose of Clegg’s article is to expand on his initial definition of it as a system based on “widespread and systematic market dependence” that includes the plantations of the old South. This view puts him in league with Sidney Mintz, James Blaut and even the NHC. Whether it is consistent with the Political Marxism he has absorbed in the NYU Sociology Department is another question entirely. For the more orthodox Brennerites, when human beings are forced to “freely” sell their labor power in the marketplace in order to survive, this satisfies one of the key requirements for capitalism. However, for Clegg the ability of slave-owners, and more specifically the need, to compete with each other for the price of slaves or the goods they produce for the marketplace qualifies them as capitalist property relations:

It is true that markets didn’t allocate slave labor within the plantation, but neither do they allocate wage labor within factories. Insofar as it is capable of being either hired or purchased slave labor is like any other capitalist commodity. The presence of a specialized class of slave traders in the antebellum South ensured that slave markets were exceptionally liquid. Evidence of their allocative efficiency can be found in the estimated net transfer, from 1820 to 1860, of more than half a million slaves from the less productive plantations of the Old South to the more productive plantations in the New South via the domestic slave trade alone.

In a footnote tied to this excerpt, Clegg states: “It is his failure to recognize the liquidity of slave labor markets that leads Charles Post to argue that slaves could not be expelled from the labor process, giving planters no incentive to introduce labor-saving technical change.”

Clegg is not satisfied with the implicit definition of capitalism in the NHC literature, which revolves around profit-seeking and commodification. It is not so much that their hazy definition is incorrect. It is more that they evasively refuse to cast it in concrete. In some sense this is certainly true. I have the three main texts of the NHC but you can search in vain for references to Karl Marx or Marxism in the index.

He recommends to his readers and implicitly to the NHC authors who come across his article that they look into Robert Brenner, whose “conception of capitalism as generalized market dependence may provide the theoretical framing that is largely missing in these works.” He goes on to explain that plantation owners had to compete with each other on the world market and thus find ways to cut costs, either through labor-saving machinery or through the violent enforcement of labor discipline that is recounted in Edward Baptist’s “The Half Has Never Been Told”.

I will pass over Clegg’s critique of some of the arguments made by the NHC since they do not touch upon the question of whether slavery is capitalism or not—the focus of this article—and proceed to the final section titled “The Problem of Origins” that addresses where, when and how capitalism began. (I should add that since I have not read the three main texts of the NHC’ers, I’d be making a fool of myself if I did.)

For Marx, its origin was simply put as “The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population”. So now what does Clegg think?

He starts off by revisiting the Eric Williams classic that actually never argued that slavery was capitalist. His thesis (literally speaking since the book was adapted from his PhD dissertation) was that slavery was necessary for the take-off of British capitalism but in itself was an earlier mode of production. However, Clegg argues against this, even citing Sven Beckert himself who made the case that British textile mills survived even after the Civil War cut off supplies from the South. He also questions whether the North was dependent on the plantation system, citing data that cotton represented only 6 percent of GDP from 1800 to 1860.

In my view this is the kind of tunnel vision that makes Political Marxism so inadequate. Rather than focusing on plantation cotton and British textile mills, it makes much more sense to analyze the origins of capitalism as the outcome of a multiplicity of factors including the impact of the Ottoman Empire as I pointed out in my review of Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu’s “How the West Came to Rule: the Geopolitical Origins of Capitalism”. Ottoman hegemony in the Mediterranean had consequences that ultimately made the “agrarian capitalism” hailed by Brenner and Wood possible, although it was never acknowledged in their scholarship. Put succinctly, the English benefited from Pax Ottomana while the Italian city-states were shut out. This meant that the nascent textile industry had easy access to wool, cotton, silk and mohair from the East. Furthermore, England’s isolation from the intra-feudal warfare of continental Europe allowed it to invest far less capital in the military. So pronounced was the “peacetime” dividend that by the 1550s Spain had seven times as men in arms than England. And none of this would have been possible without the open door the Ottomans provided.

In the final analysis, understanding how capitalism came to pass requires a much broader scope than that is found in both the Political Marxist literature as well as that of the NHC. At least the NHC historians don’t put themselves forward as experts on its origins, only as men and women intelligent enough to understand that slaves were workers producing commodities even if their labor was coerced just as was the case for the hundreds of years preceding the American civil war, from the tin mines of Bolivia to the sugar plantations of Jamaica.

Near to its conclusion, Clegg makes an observation that is most welcome:

In a capitalist order of fully specified property rights, it is wage labor rather than slave labor that is the anomaly. Far from being a precapitalist holdover, enforceable labor contracts would be the dream of many an employer. Today, indenture and debt peonage are legally restricted in most countries, not because employers found free labor to be in their enlightened self-interest but because workers refused to accept a condition approximating slavery. Commenting on a French slave code, Marx once wrote that “this subject one must study in detail to see what the bourgeois makes of himself and of the worker when he can model the world ac- cording to his own image without any interference.” (emphasis added)

He is totally right. It is wage labor that is the anomaly. In a future post, I will try to show this is particularly true of commercial farming that has been most resistant to the idea of a free market when it comes to boss and bossed relations. Just look at how chocolate is produced and you’ll understand what I am driving at.

Frankly, I sometimes wonder if Clegg pays homage to Robert Brenner despite putting forward such distinctly anti-Brennerite ideas just for professional exigency. Is it possible that kowtowing to Political Marxism is a necessity in the NYU Sociology Department because the two big shots who might be sitting on Clegg’s dissertation committee or influencing it are fanatical Brennerites like former Department chair Jeff Goodwin and Vivek Chibber who was so devoted to this academic cult that he had the balls to heckle me at a Historical Materialism conference when I challenged it during a Q&A.

 

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.”

December 29, 2017

The Fearless Benjamin Lay

Filed under: Counterpunch,religion,slavery — louisproyect @ 3:13 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, DECEMBER 29, 2017


A decade ago I reviewed “Amazing Grace”, a hagiographic biopic about William Wilberforce, the parliamentary opponent of the slave trade in Great Britain. Since I am far more interested in a film’s politics than tracking shots, I saw it as an opportunity to cut Wilberforce down to size:

The film was meant to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the passing of the bill that banned the slave trade in the British Empire, an event that constitutes the climactic scene.

What it does not make clear is that the bill did not abolish slavery itself, which would persist in Jamaica and other British colonies for another 30 years. When younger and more militant abolitionists pressed Wilberforce to enter legislation to that effect, he replied that because of the effect “which long continuance of abject slavery produces on the human mind…I look to the improvement of their minds, and to the diffusion among them of those domestic charities which will render them more fit, than I fear they now are, to bear emancipation.” In other words, the slaves were not ready for their freedom.

If my goal was to cut Wilberforce down to size, this article seeks to demonstrate that Benjamin Lay, a working-class hunchback dwarf born 72 years before, was a giant when it came to abolitionism. Unlike Wilberforce, Lay was a radical who demanded that the Quaker elite free their slaves and take a principled stand against slavery when the peculiar institution was far more in the interests of a rising empire than during Wilberforce’s years in Parliament when free trade was being adopted during the rise of economic liberalism.

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