The French/Haitian Revolutions & the American Civil War (was Re:Debating slavery: Marx's discussion)

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at
Sun Oct 22 09:18:16 MDT 2000

>From Charles Brown to Andy Austin:

> >>> austina at 10/21/00 11:48PM >>>
>-----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: 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.
>CB: The slavocracy was the ruling class of the whole U.S. in the
>decades before the Civil War. They were not in control after the
>Civil War.  The legal action constituting the full end of slavery
>was not the Emancipation Proclamation , as you focus on, but the
>13th Amendment to the Constitution, which was passed after the war,
>not during. By it, ownership of slaves became illegal for everybody.
>But the ending of slavery was substantively carried out by the war
>itself, the legal actions being crystalization of the effect of the
>The ending of slave relations of production was a social revolution.
>I believe Andy also says the American Revolution was not a
>revolution. With Lou saying the French Revolution was not a
>revolution, between the two of you, there were no bourgeois
>revolutions at all in history. The feudalist mode of production just
>sort of slipped away smoothly without any revolution.

I think that what Lou said, following George Comninel (who took what
Alfred Cobban, etc. said into account), is that the French Revolution
was not a _bourgeois_ revolution, if the _bourgeois_ revolution has
to be equated with "a revolution led by the rising bourgeoisie
fighting against the dying aristocracy."  Lou's turn to Comninel was
a part of his criticism of the "stage theory" and search for a
synthesis between Marxism, environmentalism, & indigenous peoples'
struggles (consult
<> &
<>, for

Empirically speaking, the French Revolution may be perhaps best
thought of as a democratic revolution led by "notables" (=
petit-bourgeois intellectuals), given its leadership; primary social
forces (the sans-culottes who were mainly Parisian artisans,
shop-keepers, etc., with only a minority who may be properly called
wage workers; peasants in the countryside; etc.); immediate results
(creation & entrenchment of the mass of peasant-proprietors;
retardation of economic growth during the revolution & in the
immediate post-revolutionary years; etc.); and so forth.  Cobban
thought that his empirical "discovery" proved the reigning Marxist
historians -- such as Albert Mathiez, Georges Lefebvre, Albert
Saboul, etc., all of whom combined the Sorbonne's Chair of the
History of the Revolution, the editorship of the _Annales
Historique_, and membership in the French Communist Party -- "wrong."

I'd qualify Cobban's, Francois Furet's, & George Comninel's takes on
the French Revolution, however.  That the revolution -- especially
its highest stage, the Jacobin Terror -- was led not by the
bourgeoisie but by "notables" does not prove Mathiez, Lefebvre,
Saboul, Michel Voveile, etc. -- who always _knew_ this empirical fact
without Cobban pointing it out to them -- "wrong."  The
"revolutionary bourgeoisie" is a myth _only_ in the sense that the
revolution was not led by the great bourgeois men.  For Marx and most
Marxist historians, however, the term "bourgeois revolution" never
really meant that bourgeois individuals led the revolution (or the
Enlightenment, for that matter).

Robespierre was a lawyer, not a bourgeois man; and Lenin was a
lawyer, not a wage worker.  And yet the former led a bourgeois
revolution in the sense of _modernizing_ France which eventually had
an effect of helping capitalism develop faster than otherwise
(compare France with Italy), _even though_ the French Revolution had
an immediate effect of retarding economic growth than otherwise.  And
Lenin, without a doubt, led a socialist revolution (even though wage
workers were a minority in Russia; the absence of revolutions in
other imperial nations & the Thermidor in the Soviet Union itself
negated many of the gains of the revolution; etc.).

Furthermore, consider the effect that the French Revolution and the
Anti-Jacobin War had upon Haiti; militant slaves in Haiti overthrew
slavery in the Haitian Revolution.  Remember C. L. R. James.  Looking
at the French Revolution in separation from the Haitian Revolution,
in my opinion, is a "tunnel history" that Jim Blaut has decried.

Historical materialists can learn much from empiricist scholars
(e.g., post-modernism, new historicism, the Annales School,
world-systems theory, etc. are all variants of empiricism, though
practitioners of them are often unaware of this fact), but historical
materialism is not empiricism.  Historical materialism is not
historicism either, as Antonio Gramsci, Walter Benjamin, etc. should
remind us.


P.S.  About the debate on the French Revolution, a concise
introduction to the range of positions is found in _The French
Revolution: Recent Debates and New Controversies_, ed. Gary Kates,
NY: Routledge, 1998.

P.P.S.  About the Civil War in America, consult John Ashworth's
_Slavery, Capitalism and Politics in the Antebellum Republic_ (see a
review of the book here:
onsman_on_john_ashworth_s_slavery.htm>.  The book is not perfect, but
which book is?  It needs to be supplemented by scholarship that pays
close attention to slaves' own activities, as W. E. B. DuBois,
Herbert Aptheker, C. L. R. James, Eric Williams, etc. teach us.

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