Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 29, 2017

The Fearless Benjamin Lay

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


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.

Continue reading

February 6, 2016

Capitalism, slavery and the search for definitions

Filed under: slavery,transition debate — louisproyect @ 8:16 pm

I finally got around to reading John Clegg’s article “Capitalism and Slavery” that appeared in the Fall 2015, Critical Historical Studies. Like practically all such articles dealing with Political Marxism except for those that appear occasionally in the ISO’s International Socialist Review, it is behind a paywall. I had heard that the article defended the idea that the slave-owners of the Deep South were capitalists while at the same time it defended the Brenner thesis that capitalism began in the British countryside. To put it mildly, this is about as unusual a combination of positions as can be imagined given that the Political Marxism catechism sees slavery = precapitalist as sacrosanct.

I first heard Clegg speak at a HM conference last April where he argued that chattel slavery was a form of exploitation consistent with Marx’s value theory. For Clegg, the chief difference between a wageworker and a slave was that the class relationship was based in the first instance on a contract between the buyer and seller of labor power but not in the second. Aside from that, there is really no difference since both types of labor are being exploited in order to produce commodities for sale on the capitalist marketplace for a profit.

The brunt of the article was a critique of three of the most noted historians writing in the Eric Williams tradition–Edward Baptist, Sven Beckert and Walter Johnson—for failing to provide a definition of capitalism in their various books. Although I have not read any of their books from cover to cover, I did find it interesting that when I went to the index I could find hardly any pages devoted to a theorization of capitalism. Clegg writes:

The problem is not that they lack the “correct” definition of capitalism. The problem is that by dodging the problem of definition altogether they fail to provide a coherent account of capitalist slavery. One doesn’t need to believe in such a thing as “pure” capitalism in order to recognize that modern capitalist societies have certain core features in common. Nor does one have to be a structuralist to see that capitalism lends itself to systematic analysis. Yet these authors fail to explain how the various features of the antebellum economy that they identify form part of a coherent capitalist system.

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. 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.

So there you have it. A rejection of one core belief of Political Marxism while embracing another. That’s something you don’t see every day.

In his exegesis of the three historians, Clegg places them in the legacy of Fogel and Engerman’s “Time on the Cross”. This was a book that argued for the capitalistic logic of slave plantations where profit governed every calculation, even more so than in northern factories. While Fogel and Engerman made some useful arguments supported by extensive documentation, they went overboard and argued that productivity breakthroughs in the south led to improvements in the lives of slaves to the point of making them materially privileged in comparison to many wage workers.

Against these two stood Eugene Genovese who claimed that the plantation owners had much more in common with feudal lords, a point made essentially by Brenner and Charles Post. It is obviously wrong. In his own way, Genovese shared Fogel and Engerman’s dubious support for the idea of slave owner beneficence. For them, it flowed from their commitment to the idea that a happy worker was a productive worker, while for Genovese it was much more of a function of precapitalist paternalism of the sort that allowed serfs to have more than a hundred days of religious holidays per year.

While nominally in the Fogel and Engerman camp, the three historians considered by Clegg all subscribe to the notion that it was violence that increased productivity on the plantation—not adroit management or time and labor-saving technologies. This is something Clegg regards as exaggerated:

The point is not that violence was an ineffective means of extracting surplus labor from slaves. If the whip hadn’t worked, it wouldn’t have been so widely used. Baptist and Johnson are right to emphasize, against the neoclassical assumptions of Fogel and Engerman, that market competition most likely increased rather than moderated slave owner violence. The point is rather that slave owners subject to a competitive constraint can always be expected to use violence to whatever extent it is profitable. They will use violence to extract the maximum output when cotton yields and pickability are low, and they will continue to use violence to extract the even larger output when yields and pickability rise due to changing soils and seeds. Thus it is implausible that increased violence alone could account for a fourfold increase in productivity from 1805 to 1860. For it would suggest that market-dependent slave owners in 1805 were either too ignorant or too kind to take advantage of a relatively simple way to make a lot of money.

Up till this point, there’s not much for me to disagree with. I would only add that I would tend to hold off final judgement on the three historians until I have had a chance to read their books from beginning to end. My suspicion is that I will take a somewhat different tack than both Clegg and the others. Isn’t it the case that social control is not just a function of violence but the threat of violence? People were obedient in Nazi Germany because the threat of violence was omnipresent. The same thing was likely true in the Deep South.

Clegg has a section in his article titled “The Problem of Origins” that I dare say is problematic. It is there that he calls upon the Brenner thesis to “fix” what was wrong in the three historians, namely their belief that without American slavery there would be no British capitalism. In other words, they were wrong to either explicitly or implicitly base themselves on Eric Williams. While no doubt accepting the possibility that cotton from the south was a key and necessary raw material for the textile industry, Clegg argues that it is impossible to prove that British capitalism or that of the northern states was “dependent’ on it.

I will reserve judgement on this until I have had a chance to evaluate Clegg’s claim that “while cotton represented a large share of US exports, exports were a small share of the antebellum US economy, averaging 6 percent of GDP from 1800–1860.” To my knowledge GDP data does not exist prior to 1870 but maybe Clegg has a better handle on this.

What I am more qualified to render an opinion on is the echt Brennerite claim that “The Spanish, Portuguese, and French often had richer colonies, but none experienced either large scale industrialization or an industrial revolution.” By now you should be familiar with the idea that it was only Britain that had made a transition to capitalism so the plunder of gold and silver, the slave trade, the genocide against the Indians, etc. was “squandered” everywhere except England.

To a large extent, Clegg’s flawed thinking on this is a function of relying simultaneously on both Brenner and Wallerstein, who seem to serve as ideological boundaries for his understanding of the origins of capitalism. Despite their furious debates over the years, both scholars accepted that capitalism began in England as a consequence of contradictions internal to feudalism. Once it was established there, it diffused outwards but for Wallerstein was utterly reliant on colonization for its ability to become hegemonic.

Political Marxism and world systems theory both have a Eurocentric outlook although in Wallerstein’s case it was meliorated by his steadfast engagement with those who existed on its periphery—the “people without history” as Hegel put it.

Missing from Clegg’s analysis is the place of England within an ensemble of class relations existing inter-societally vis-a-vis the Mongols, the Ottomans, the Chinese and the Indians. As a ‘backward” country on their periphery, England was able to leapfrog over them through a series of policies that exploited its geographical position, its military superiority, its access to New World bullion and other factors identified in Anievas and Nisancioglu’s “How the West Came to Rule”. None of this is reflected in the traditional axis of the debate as constituted by Brenner on one hand and the dependency theorists on the other.

However, the biggest problem for me is Clegg’s use of the term capitalism firstly as an adjective to describe a particular country like England and secondly the usefulness of the term in conventional social science terms, which he seems to employ unfortunately.

Referring to another scholar’s problem with the new historians’ avoidance of a definition for capitalism, Clegg writes: “It is true that terminological debates can have a pedantic tone, and it is unlikely they will be resolved anytime soon. However, if the new field is to last, it cannot avoid the question of definition.”

This leads us to the interesting question of whether Marx ever defined the term himself. In fact if you do a search on it on MIA, you will find not a single attempt to do so. Mostly you see him grappling with the problem of defining capital, such as in “Wage Labor and Capital”: “Capital consists of raw materials, instruments of labour, and means of subsistence of all kinds, which are employed in producing new raw materials, new instruments, and new means of subsistence. All these components of capital are created by labour, products of labour, accumulated labour. Accumulated labour that serves as a means to new production is capital.”

Sometimes Marx refers to “the capitalist system” but without taking any particular pains to clarify what that means. Usually it is something like this: “The capitalist system presupposes the complete separation of the labourers from all property in the means by which they can realize their labour”, something just about everybody can agree with.

However, the problem arises when you try to use such terms both as a social science type definition and as a historical term for the simple reason that when capitalism is coming into being (to put it in Hegelian terms), it has only a relative “separation of the labourers from all property” as the presence of a dominantly self-husbanding peasantry in late 18th century France would indicate. Was France capitalist at this point or was it feudal? I suppose the only way to answer that is like Faye Dunaway answering Jack Nicholson in “Chinatown”. “Who was she?” “She was my daughter”. Slap. “She was my sister”. Slap. “All right. She was my daughter. She was my sister”. Aaah!

Was there any way to answer this question of defining capitalism in the early stages other than how Trotsky answered the question of whether the USSR was socialist? I don’t think so. The sooner the Brennerites begin to use the same kind of language with respect to early modern European economic history, the better off we will all be.

To define the Soviet regime as transitional, or intermediate, means to abandon such finished social categories as capitalism (and therewith “state capitalism”) and also socialism. But besides being completely inadequate in itself, such a definition is capable of producing the mistaken idea that from the present Soviet regime only a transition to socialism is possible. In reality a backslide to capitalism is wholly possible. A more complete definition will of necessity be complicated and ponderous.

The Soviet Union is a contradictory society halfway between capitalism and socialism, in which: (a) the productive forces are still far from adequate to give the state property a socialist character; (b) the tendency toward primitive accumulation created by want breaks out through innumerable pores of the planned economy; (c) norms of distribution preserving a bourgeois character lie at the basis of a new differentiation of society; (d) the economic growth, while slowly bettering the situation of the toilers, promotes a swift formation of privileged strata; (e) exploiting the social antagonisms, a bureaucracy has converted itself into an uncontrolled caste alien to socialism; (f) the social revolution, betrayed by the ruling party, still exists in property relations and in the consciousness of the toiling masses; (g) a further development of the accumulating contradictions can as well lead to socialism as back to capitalism; (h) on the road to capitalism the counterrevolution would have to break the resistance of the workers; (i) on the road to socialism the workers would have to overthrow the bureaucracy. In the last analysis, the question will be decided by a struggle of living social forces, both on the national and the world arena.

Doctrinaires will doubtless not be satisfied with this hypothetical definition. They would like categorical formulae: yes – yes, and no – no. Sociological problems would certainly be simpler, if social phenomena had always a finished character. There is nothing more dangerous, however, than to throw out of reality, for the sake of logical completeness, elements which today violate your scheme and tomorrow may wholly overturn it. In our analysis, we have above all avoided doing violence to dynamic social formations which have had no precedent and have no analogies. The scientific task, as well as the political, is not to give a finished definition to an unfinished process, but to follow all its stages, separate its progressive from its reactionary tendencies, expose their mutual relations, foresee possible variants of development, and find in this foresight a basis for action.

The Revolution Betrayed, 1936 (https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1936/revbet/ch09.htm#ch09-3)

April 27, 2015

Capitalism, slavery and primitive accumulation

Filed under: slavery,transition debate — louisproyect @ 6:44 pm

The inspiration for Political Marxism?

On Saturday morning I attended a panel discussion on Mike Zmolek’s newly published “Rethinking the Industrial Revolution” at the Historical Materialism conference held at NYU. This is a 1000-page work based on his dissertation that he began 20 years ago on the suggestion of his adviser George Comninel that the Brenner thesis should be extended forward historically to account for the industrial revolution. While I am sure that the book has a lot of interesting research based on a cursory glance at the dissertation in Proquest, my reaction is to wonder why the Political Marxism tendency, to which Comninel and Zmolek belong, has so little interest in another kind of extension, namely geographical. How in the world can you continue to ignore economic and social developments in the colonial world in the period of early modernity? In some ways it reminds me of that famous New Yorker cartoon where you see a map of the USA in which all the states recede in size increasingly as you move westward from Manhattan with California finally the size of a postage stamp. Substitute the British Isles for Manhattan and you get the Political Marxism perspective.

In the Q&A, Jim Creegan, a Marxmail subscriber and occasional contributor to Weekly Worker, raised a question about merchant capital. He thought that the role of state monopolies such as the East India Company was a major factor in the transition to capitalism in England and wondered why it was given short shrift in Political Marxism scholarship.

Charles Post, who is a Political Marxist and was a discussant in this panel, gave a reply to Creegan that I found quite startling. He informed him that this was an interpretation based on an understanding of “primitive accumulation” that belonged to Early Marx, before he became a full-fledged Marxist. It was the one that could be found in the German Ideology and Communist Manifesto and that was still in the shadow of Adam Smith—a Smithian Marxism so to speak. It was only after Marx had become “clear”, to use the Scientology term, in his later years of the Grundrisse and Capital that the real “primitive accumulation” emerged, one in which social property relations was the lynchpin rather than errant notions of buckets of booty from the colonies, slavery and all that other stuff got mixed in. In this interpretation, it was the enclosure acts, etc. that define primitive accumulation rather than the overseas accumulation of silver, etc.

While I thought I was pretty familiar with Marx’s writings, I had no idea that he wrote about primitive accumulation in German Ideology or the Communist Manifesto, even errantly, so as soon as I got home from the conference I checked it out. Now the last thing on earth that I could possibly be accused of is reading Charles Post’s mind but I have a feeling that he might have been referring to Marx’s emphasis on the role of commerce and the town in the late middle ages. For example, he writes in the German Ideology: “The immediate consequence of the division of labour between the various towns was the rise of manufactures, branches of production which had outgrown the guild-system. Manufactures first flourished, in Italy and later in Flanders, under the historical premise of commerce with foreign nations.” But this, of course, has no connection to Creegan’s question.

Probably the definitive take on primitive accumulation comes from Ellen Meiksins Wood, a leading doyen of the Political Marxism tendency. She limits it strictly to changes in the British countryside and regards any loot wrested from Latin America, Africa or Asia simply as fuel to the fire that was burning in Merrie Olde England:

The essence of Marx’s critique of “the so-called primitive accumulation” (and people too often miss the significance of the phrase “so-called”) is that no amount of accumulation, whether from outright theft, from imperialism, from commercial profit, or even from the exploitation of labour for commercial profit, by itself constitutes capital, nor will it produce capitalism. The specific precondition of capitalism is a transformation of social property relations that generates capitalist “laws of motion”: the imperatives of competition and profit-maximization, a compulsion to reinvest surpluses, and a systematic and relentless need to improve labour-productivity and develop the forces of production.

The critical transformation of social property relations, in Marx’s account, took place in the English countryside, with the expropriation of the direct producers. In the new agrarian relations, landlords increasingly derived rents from the commercial profits of capitalist tenants, while many small producers were dispossessed and became wage labourers. Marx regards this rural transformation as the real “primitive accumulation” not because it created a critical mass of wealth but because these social property relations generated new economic imperatives, especially the compulsions of competition, a systematic need to develop the productive forces, leading to new laws of motion such as the world had never seen before.

“Origins of Capitalism”, pp. 36-37

Furthermore, if Wood had been in attendance at this panel, she would have sharply rebuked Creegan for giving any credence to the idea that merchant capital was an important precursor to the full development of capitalist property relations. In “Empire of Capital”, she described the East India Company as “non-capitalist” and an impediment to economic growth even though in its early stages it helped the British textile industry grow by suppressing India’s advantage.

Unfortunately, by reducing the East India Company’s role in this matter to a sentence or two, Wood succumbs to the New Yorker Magazine cartoon version of history. It would behoove her or any other Political Marxist to pay heed to what R. Palme Dutt wrote in “India Today” back in 1949:

Immediately after, the great series of inventions, such as spinning-jenny and the steam engine, began in Europe which initiated the Industrial Revolution. The development of the age of inventions depended, not simply on “some special and unaccountable burst of inventive genius,” as the leading authority on English industrial history, W. Cunningham, writes in his Growth of English Industry and Commerce in Modern Times, but on the accumulation of a sufficient body of capital as the indispensable condition to make possible the large-scale outlay for their utilisation. Previous inventions of Kay’s fly-shuttle in 1733 and Wyatt’s roller-spinning machine in 1738 came to naught because they couldn’t be used for lack of capital. It was the plunder of India that thus set into motion one of the greatest revolutions of history – the Industrial Revolution. In his Law of Civilization and Decay, the American writer, Brooke Adams describes how it happened:

The influx of the Indian treasure, by adding considerably to the nation’s cash capital, not only increased its stock of energy, but added much to its flexibility and the rapidity of its movement. Very soon after Plassey, the Bengal plunder began to arrive in London, and the effect appears to have been instantaneous; for all the authorities agree that the ‘industrial revolution,’ the event which has divided the nineteenth century from all antecedent time, began with the year 1760. Prior to 1760, according to Bains, the machinery used for spinning cotton in Lancashire was almost as simple as in India; while about 1750 the English iron industry was in full decline because of the destruction of forests for fuel. At that time four-fifths of the iron used in the kingdom came from Sweden.

Plassey was fought in 1757, and probably nothing has ever equalled in rapidity of the change which followed. In 1760 the flying shuttle appeared, and coal began to replace wood in smelting. In 1764 Hargreaves invented the spinning jenny, in 1776 Crompton contrived the mule, in 1785 Cartwright patented the powerloom, and, chief of all, in 1768 Watt matured the steam engine, the most perfect of all vents of centralising energy. But though these machines served as outlets for the accelerating movement of the time, they did not cause that acceleration. In themselves inventions are passive, many of the most important having lain dormant for centuries, waiting for a sufficient store of force to have accumulated to set them working. That store must always take the shape of money, and money not hoarded, but in motion. Before the influx of the Indian treasure, and the expansion of credit which followed, no force sufficient for this purpose existed; and had Watt lived fifty years earlier, he and his invention must have perished together. Possibly since the world began, no investment has ever yielded the profit reaped from the Indian plunder…

The spoliation of India was thus the hidden source of capital accumulation which played an all-important role in helping to make possible the industrial revolution in England. Once the industrial capital was established in England, it needed markets to sells its products to. It was again India which was forced, to absorb these goods to enable the industrial revolution in England to sustain itself. India had to be de-industrialized in order to achieve this. After the victory of English industrial capital over its mercantile capital, India’s textile industry was destroyed leading to the destruction of its urban economy and the subsequent overcrowding in the villages and pushing India hundreds of years behind in its economic development.

Of course, Dutt was a leader of the Communist Party of India and as such might be susceptible to the sort of errant thinking that left the early Karl Marx beneath Charles Post’s exacting standards but surely we can accept the word of the Master himself in his mature phase. While the entire chapter 20 of V.3 of Capital (“Historical Facts about Merchant’s Capital”) would be edifying, it is essential to see how Marx viewed it in terms of the “transition” debate:

There is no doubt — and it is precisely this fact which has led to wholly erroneous conceptions — that in the 16th and 17th centuries the great revolutions, which took place in commerce with the geographical discoveries and speeded the development of merchant’s capital, constitute one of the principal elements in furthering the transition from feudal to capitalist mode of production. The sudden expansion of the world-market, the multiplication of circulating commodities, the competitive zeal of the European nations to possess themselves of the products of Asia and the treasures of America, and the colonial system — all contributed materially toward destroying the feudal fetters on production.

In other words, James Creegan was saying exactly the same thing that Karl Marx was saying, something that the Political Marxists can’t get into their thick skulls. In fact, in the chapter on the Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist in V. 1 of Capital, he doesn’t mention the enclosure acts at all. Instead he cites the East India Company, the slave trade, the extermination of the American Indian and all those other things that recede from the Anglocentric perspective of Post, Wood, Brenner, incorporated:

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. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre. It begins with the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain, assumes giant dimensions in England’s Anti-Jacobin War, and is still going on in the opium wars against China, &c.

In a very real sense, the debate that the Political Marxists have begun is not so much with people like the late James Blaut, Henry Heller, or Neil Davidson. It is with Karl Marx himself. As long as people have access to Capital, the last word on these questions according to his gatekeeper Charles Post, they will consider these words and realize that they are at odds with those who speak in his name as paragons of orthodoxy. A little less “orthodoxy” and a bit more modesty is in order.

On Sunday morning I heard presentations by John Clegg and Robin Blackburn in a panel on “Slavery in the Age of Capital” that were also important contributions to the ongoing debate over the “transition” question.

For those of you who have been keeping up with this debate, you are probably aware that Charles Post tried to apply the Brenner thesis to the American Civil War viewing slavery as a “precapitalist” institution that the northern bourgeoisie sought to destroy in order to carry out a bourgeois revolution, even if that concept is strictly verboten in Political Marxism circles. Once again, Karl Marx had a completely different take on the relationship of slavery to capitalism:

Direct slavery is as much the pivot upon which our present-day industrialism turns as are machinery, credit, etc. Without slavery there would be no cotton, without cotton there would be no modern industry. It is slavery which has given value to the colonies, it is the colonies which have created world trade, and world trade is the necessary condition for large-scale machine industry. Consequently, prior to the slave trade, the colonies sent very few products to the Old World, and did not noticeably change the face of the world. Slavery is therefore an economic category of paramount importance. Without slavery, North America, the most progressive nation, would he transformed into a patriarchal country. Only wipe North America off the map and you will get anarchy, the complete decay of trade and modern civilisation. But to do away with slavery would be to wipe America off the map.

Letter from Marx to Pavel Vasilyevich Annenkov, 1846

John Clegg not only would agree with this assessment. He goes even further and uses Karl Marx’s categories to defend the proposition that slaves produced surplus value. In other words, the chief difference between a wageworker and a slave was that the class relationship was based in the first instance on a contract between the buyer and seller of labor power but not in the second. Aside from that, there is really no difference since both types of labor is being exploited in order to produce commodities for sale on the capitalist marketplace for a profit.

Clegg has co-authored an article with Duncan Foley, the chair of the economics department at the New School Graduate Faculty and a highly respected Marxist scholar, which has been submitted to the Cambridge Economic History Review and that his talk was drawn from. I will not try to recapitulate it since it is quite complex but will instead refer you to a presentation he has given on it in the past: http://wearemany.org/a/2013/04/slavery-and-capitalism

What I can offer as well is Duncan Foley’s views on slavery and capitalism as they appeared on Gerry Levy’s OPE-List back in 2000:

It always seemed to me that slaves in the New World were very closely tied to the commodity-producing system. Certainly in the U.S. the main motive for holding slaves was to produce export crops like tobacco and cotton. The labor of the slaves added value to the inputs, like wage labor, and presumably more value than the value equivalent of their subsistence. (I suspect quite a bit of the subsistence was produced on the plantations.) Thus there was a potential surplus value in the employment of slaves.

Full: http://ricardo.ecn.wfu.edu/~cottrell/OPE/archive/0004/0110.html

Blackburn’s talk was focused on a discussion of some of the new research on slavery and capitalism that is found in books by Sven Beckert, Edward Baptist and Walter Johnson that he generally agreed with despite his concerns that they err on the side of drawing too much of an equation between wage labor and slavery.

Although I had tended to associate him largely with the Brenner thesis in the past, he made it clear that he was critical of Political Marxism and described Robert Brenner as having a long term problem with primitive accumulation, no doubt of the kind that involves the East India and company.

He was also very much in agreement with the basic thesis of Sven Beckert’s “Empire of Cotton”, namely that this commodity was instrumental to the growth of capitalism in Britain and, moreover, its colonial aspirations. When the British textile industry began to take off, it fueled the slave trade in the United States. As he put it, there can be different interpretations of whether slavery led to capitalism but no one could possibly disagree with the idea that the growth of capitalism led to the growth of slavery in the 19th century, a clear rebuttal of the idea that the two mode of production were inimical to each other. It may be the case that they would eventually come to blows but in the early stages, they were joined at the hip. Just as was the case in India, “extra-economic” coercion can often serve as a handmaiden to market relations even if some Marxists don’t get it.

April 10, 2015

Slave Rebellions on the Open Seas

Filed under: Counterpunch,slavery — louisproyect @ 4:27 pm
Slave Rebellions on the Open Seas

The Black Struggle Against Slavery


Greg Grandin’s “The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom and Deception in the New World” and Marcus Rediker’s “The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom” share both subject matter—slave rebellions on the open seas—and an unabashed commitment to the Black freedom struggle. Beyond the fortuitous combination of topic and political passion, however, the greatest reward for any reader is how both authors make history come alive. Despite their remoteness in time and place, the stories they tell have an obvious affinity for the Black struggle today as a new civil rights struggle takes shape to secure the final victory sought by ancestors Babo and Cinque.

“The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom and Deception in the New World” is an exploration of the events that inspired Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno”, an 1855 novella about the ruse orchestrated by slaves fifty years earlier to convince Captain Amasa Delano, a distant relative of FDR, that their vessel remained under their ex-master’s sway. This excerpt from Melville should give you a flavor of this droll and macabre tale:

Three black boys, with two Spanish boys, were sitting together on the hatches, scraping a rude wooden platter, in which some scanty mess had recently been cooked. Suddenly, one of the black boys, enraged at a word dropped by one of his white companions, seized a knife, and though called to forbear by one of the oakum-pickers, struck the lad over the head, inflicting a gash from which blood flowed.

In amazement, Captain Delano inquired what this meant. To which the pale Benito dully muttered, that it was merely the sport of the lad.

“Pretty serious sport, truly,” rejoined Captain Delano. “Had such a thing happened on board the Bachelor’s Delight, instant punishment would have followed.”

At these words the Spaniard turned upon the American one of his sudden, staring, half-lunatic looks; then, relapsing into his torpor, answered, “Doubtless, doubtless, Senor.”

If Grandin’s history is a fitting counterpart to Melville’s fiction, a work of high culture for the ages, we can see “The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom” as a necessary corrective to Stephen Spielberg’s pop culture film that like his “Lincoln” told a tale of paternalistic white intervention when the real history would have revealed something much more like self-emancipation.

read full article

December 11, 2014

Slavery and Capitalism

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

A passage from this extraordinary book:

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

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


December 4, 2014

When slaves were paid wages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 9, 2014

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

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

Screen shot 2014-11-09 at 2.30.54 PM

Timothy Shenk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


October 28, 2014

Madison Washington and the Creole Rebellion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 8, 2014

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

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

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

By Andrew Cockburn

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

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

No refuge could save the hireling and slave

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

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

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

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

September 28, 2014

When the Nation Magazine grew weary of Reconstruction

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

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

Douglas Blackmon:

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

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