Debating slavery: Marx's discussion

Jim Farmelant farmelantj at
Sun Oct 22 09:56:25 MDT 2000

On Sat, 21 Oct 2000 22:48:41 -0500 "Austin, Andrew" <austina at>
> -----Original Message-----
> From: Charles Brown [mailto:CharlesB at]
> Sent: Friday, October 20, 2000 3:29 PM
> To: marxism at
> Subject: RE: Debating slavery: Marx's discussion
> CB: Lincoln was dead at that time of Post-Reconstruction.
> AA: Everything I said about Lincoln is true and his policies had
> real
> consequences. Johnson and Republicans carried Lincoln's policies
> forward
> after his death. Neither Lincoln or Johnson believed that whites and
> blacks
> could live together without the former in a position of supremacy
> over the
> latter. Both were racists.
> CB: Aptheker's thesis of the Civil War as revolutionary is based on
> the idea
> that one of the main forms of private property in the U.S. system -
> private
> property in people - was abolished by that war. Marxism focuses on
> the form
> of property as defining a mode of production. There was a
> fundamental
> transformation in the mode of production with the abolition of
> slavery.
> AA: The only problem with this view is that those who were in
> control before
> emancipation were in control afterwards. Lincoln only deprived those
> of
> means from property who were in rebellion against the United States,
> and
> this was largely in theory. Those who were not in rebellion had no
> property
> confiscated, including slaves. In fact, Lincoln circumvented a law
> that the
> radicals in Congress passed that may have seen a real confiscation
> of
> slave-holders' property. In circumventing that law Lincoln actually
> re-enslaved hundreds of thousands of people. To please the radicals
> Lincoln
> at one point proposed a program for gradual compensated
> emancipation, to be
> completed sometime in the early 20th century, wherein taxpayers
> would pay
> slaveowners the value of their lost slave-labor and then finance the
> organized migration of blacks to Africa. Lincoln had no intention
> before his
> death for unqualified emancipation of slaves. Sure, Johnson, a
> bigger racist
> than Lincoln, played the populist card, condemning the plantations
> for
> having misled the average white man into betraying the union, but
> then he
> turned around and permitted the restoration of property, amnesty and
> pardon,
> for anybody who took an oath of loyalty to the union. The
> Republicans helped
> secure for the plantation owners laws that coerced former slaves
> into
> working on the plantations, one of these being the very amendment
> that freed
> the slaves (the 13th)! There has never been a comprehensive
> reparations plan
> for freed slaves.

This fails to engage with Charles's point that before the Civil War
the Southern planter class constructed not only a regional ruling
class but was THE ruling class for the US as a whole.  The
Southern planters prior to 1860 controlled all three branches
of the Federal government - the presidents were generally
Southerners, the South dominated Congress, and the judiciary
was populated with appointees either from the South or beholden
to Southern political interests.  The election of Lincoln in 1860
signaled that the Southern planters were losing their grip over
national politics as their hegemony was now being directly threatened
by the rising class of industrial capitalists in the North whose
were in many respects inimical to those of the planters.  That is
why the planters responded to the election of Lincoln by pushing
for succession from the Union.

> A claim that the legal dissolution of formal slave-labor in the
> United
> States meant a substantive transformation in the structure of
> property and
> profits in the South is not supported by the evidence. Therefore
> there was
> no social revolution in the sense articulated here. In fact, slavery
> in the
> US was part of the capitalist world-economy, and the post-slavery US
> was
> still part of the capitalist world-economy. The same class in
> control before
> emancipation was in control after emancipation.

However, that ignores the fact that there was a very significant
shift if power between two different and antagonistic fractions of
the capitalit class in the US.  Carrol Cox has in the past pointed
out that in Latin America in the 19th century, similar divisions
existed in the bourgeoisies there.  In most Latin American
countries there existed a stratum of large landowners whose
economic interests tied them to the great European imperial
powers like Spain or Britain, and opposing them were rising
stratum of industrialists with quite different interests.  Just
as the US experienced a Civil War so did most of Latin America
experience civil wars involving clashes between these two
opposing strata.  Whereas, in the US the planter class of the South
was defeated and Northern industrial capital triumphant with
the consequence that the US soon became a great industrial
country and a leading  imperial power in its own right, most
Latin American nations experienced the opposite outcome in
their civil wars.  There, it was the planters and the large landowners
who were trumphant and once consequence of this was
that Latin America has ever since remained subordinate both
economically and politically to the great imperial powers whether
Spain & Britain in the 19th century or the US in the 20th century.

>Blacks labored on
> the same
> plantations after emancipation. The same crops were being cultivated
> after
> the war. The same trading networks were in operation after the war.
> What the
> Civil War does represent is a failed attempt by the southern states
> to break
> away from the United States of America and form their own nation.
> This is a
> far cry from what is understood as a social revolution.

The Civil War did, however, establish the hegemony of one fraction of
the capitalist class over another.  The industrial capitalists of the
North triumphed by abolishing the productive property (slavery) upon
which the domination of the other fraction (Southern planters) rested.
That was certainly a revolutionary consequence IMO even if not as
revolutionary as we would expect the proletarian revolution to be in
the future.  It is certainly true that most of the expectations that
had of what the abolition of slavery would mean were soon betrayed
after the war.  The triumph of Northern industrial capital required that
only the specific economic basis of the planters' power (slavery)
be broken but it did not necessarily require that the general
of blacks to whites be abolished and it was not.

Jim F.

> Andrew Austin
> Green Bay, WI

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