Debating slavery

Charles Brown CharlesB at
Fri Oct 20 11:27:50 MDT 2000

>>> lnp3 at 10/20/00 12:07PM >>>
CB: I just mailed some of the exchange Lou started on this to Aptheker. We
have regular correspondence, so he may give some reply on it.

LP: Charles, all of this controversy is kind of new to me, so please excuse
me if I misrepresent anybody's views, most especially Aptheker's who I have
the deepest respect for. What I am trying to figure out is how Aptheker
stands on the question of whether the slavocracy was capitalist or
precapitalist. My understanding is that classical Marxist historiography on
the Civil War, whether written by CP'ers like Aptheker or Trotskyists like
George Novack, approaches it as a kind of "bourgeois democratic" revolution
against precapitalist society. As you know, I am somewhat leery of the
whole notion of a bourgeois democratic revolution based on my reading of
George Comninel and the "revisionists" of the French revolution. The rather
short-lived career of Reconstruction would seem to indicate that the
northern industrialists had very little commitment to uprooting the old
system root and branch. The KKK, Jim Crow and voter exclusion acted to
perpetuate a kind of "precapitalist" social relationship.


CB: I'm going to do some research on your question about Aptheker ( including asking
him directly).

However, from memory I can give a partial answer. I don't even know where the
following is in writing, because I first had it as lectures on tapes. But the unique
thing about Aptheker is that he says that the Civil War was a revolutonary change
because it involved the overthrow of a main form of private property in the U.S.
system - private property in people. So, that is not your typical bourgeois democratic
rev thesis, I don't think. Also, Aptheker picks up a related theme that is in Marx's
analysis of the U.S. and its South: that the slavocracy was the ruling class of the
entire U.S. in the decades before the Civil War. This is because the superprofits of
slavery allowed the slavocracy to control the U.S. federal government. The Northern
Democratic Party was its ally. Most of the Presidents were from the South. The Supreme
Court was controlled by them. Aptheker characterizes Lincoln's election as a
revolution because the economic nature of slavery was that it had to constan!
tly expand its land base ( this is directly in Marx's analysis of the U.S. slave
system); and the Republican's position that slavery could remain in the South , but
couldn't expand to new terrirtory was a death sentence for slavery. So, the South
carried out a counterrevolution. If you follow me here, Aptheker categorizes the Civil
War as a Southern counterrevolutionary coup. Lincoln's election was a revolution
against the slavocracy, which was the ruling class of the whole U.S. And the
Southerners' attack on Fort Sumner was a counter revolutionary coup attempt.

So, I would say that Aptheker's take on the capitalistic quality of the Southern
system is the same as mine. Capitalism had always been from its start in the primitive
accumulation a combination of wage-labor and slavery/colonialism. Slavery had always
been a necessary condition and integral element of the capitalist system, a world
system, not just in Europe. The accumulation on European territory got a jump start
from and was dependent upon super-accumulation in the colonies and slavery areas.

So, U.S. South was definitely capitalist, even though it didn't have pure wage-labor.

And finally, it was the contradictions of the non-pure capitalist elements of the
Southern system , which finally became ripe and ended it,  when the Northern
industrial system developed out of the manufacturing capitalist system of early
America , "manufacture" in the technical sense that Marx uses it is in _Capital_ as
the phase of capitalism before industrial capitalism.


Against this you have two other tendencies, one represented by Eugene
Genovese, who also believes that we are dealing with a precapitalist social
formation but with his own particular implicitly reactionary spin, namely
that the slaves "consented" to their situation. I wonder why no "Marxists"
influenced by this line of reasoning ever applied this theory to Jewish
slave labor in Nazi Germany. I think the answer is obvious. You can get
away much easier with slandering African-Americans than Jews.


CB: Justin Schwartz is into that.  After Genovese, he says U.S. slaves operated in
Gramscian consent , but Jewish concentration camp victims did not.

What is creepy and exasperating about Genovese is not only does  he besmirch the name
of Marxism ( and probably Gramsci) , but he glibly articulates a thesis that is the
exact antithesis of Aptheker's great contribution to the whole field, i.e. that there
was enormous resistence to slavery by the slaves. Genovese is a reincarnation of the
slaveowners' ideologists doing it in our name.  Makes you want to throttle the


The other tendency represented by Engerman and Fogel is to characterize the
slavocracy as capitalist, but using neoclassical economics rather than
Marxism. Eric Nilsson argued on PEN-L that:

"The basic ideological issue behind this efficiency is the neoclassical
assumption that what exists is efficient. Slavery existed and, so, it must
been efficient (so say the neoclassicals). The concern of neoclassicals is,
if slavery existed and was not efficient, when then what does this say about
production within capitalism--it is not necessarily efficient?"


CB: I am going to take the time to copy some of Aptheker's critique of Engerman and
Fogel's _Time on the Cross_. He definitely says they are a modern version of
slaveowner ideologists too. On the important issue here - slave resistence - Genovese
and Engerman/Fogel are both racists.


What I have yet to encounter, and it may be in Mark M. Smith's "Mastered By
The Clock Time Slavery And Freedom In The American South" but I kind of
doubt based on exchanges I've had with him, is an analysis that is related
to Eric Williams' "Capitalism and Slavery". Williams, who was strongly
influenced by CLR James who was in turn influenced strongly by Trotsky's
theory of combined and uneven development, defines slavery as being part of
the capitalist world system despite the fact that there was no free labor,
which for some Marxists is a precondition for capitalism. I am interested
to see if there are any Marxists who have written about the slavocracy from
this standpoint. So far it seems that if they exist, they are keeping
themselves hidden.


CB: As you can see, my analysis above is of this sort. It's not just combined and
uneven development, but the wage-labor sector is dependent upon the slave sector,
especially the closer we are to the primitive accumulation. The slave mode within the
wage-labor mode is an necessary and integral part of the whole capitalist system.
Without slavery, no capitalism period. This is a dialectical, holistic approach. A
further dialectic is that there is a contradiction between the slave and wage-labor
aspects that finally becomes ripe with the Civil War ( and abolition of slavery in
other countries) . Furthermore , this is a dialectic because what was necessary at
first , a slave sector, eventually is negated, causing a qualitative change in
capitalism itself. Slavery is replaced by the new forms of colonial superexploitation
in the IMPERIALIST phase of capitalism.  This is  a dialectical and historical
materialist understanding of the history of capitalism ( not just slavery, because!
 slavery IS capitalism) .


I am cc'ing Mark Smith on this. Who knows. Maybe we can drag him and
Aptheker into the discussion...


CB: Yes, I cc'd Manning Marable too. Maybe I will cc Mark Solomon.

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