Debating slavery: Marx's discussion

Austin, Andrew austina at
Sun Oct 22 12:32:46 MDT 2000

The question of revolutionary character depends on the nature of
transformations in the mode of production and property relations. The
occurrence of a social revolution is an objective fact. If a civil war
occurs between feudal and bourgeois class fractions and the latter prevail
then we are talking about the political side of a social revolution. The
counter-revolutionary tendency comes from the social classes no longer
congruent with the new social order (when they decide to resist). The United
States never experienced a social revolution because the colonization of
North America was part of the world capitalist revolution. The North
American colonies were (by and large) English colonies, and the violent
formation of the United States represents a war of independence. In the war
between the North and the South, there was a difference of opinion. Leaders
in the South believed they had the right to withdraw from the union and form
an independent nation. Leaders in the North believed that such an act
constituted rebellion and moved to put the rebellion down. No matter how
dramatically things changed after emancipation, the US civil war could only
have constituted a social revolution if one of the parties had transcended
the prevailing mode of production, which was capitalist. Only those who
argue that the South was a pre-capitalist mode of production can take the
contrary position. Those who believe slavery in the US was capitalist cannot
do this without contradicting the Marxian definition of revolution. It is my
adherence to Marxist orthodoxy in this instance that leads me to reject the
idea of social revolution in the United States during either the late-1700s
or the mid-1860s. Perhaps I might be criticized for my orthodoxy, but I
don't think it can be said that I have stretched Marxism to support a
conservative position.

The debate over consensus versus coercion in the oppression of enslaved
blacks is based on a false premise. The resistance to the notion that slaves
generally submitted to white rule rests on the assumption that submission
and passivity reflect an agreement to be dominated. Quite the contrary.
Passivity is a survival strategy. The same can be said for submission after
slavery in the convict leasing and chain gang systems. State and local
officials regularly reported that convicts (90% of whom were black) were
content with their existence in the camps. Indeed, despite occasional
rebellions, most of the convicts' time was spent conforming to the rules of
the system. It was not because slaves or convicts freely volunteered to be
enslaved. It was because failure to comply with the rules carried obvious
consequences. When the velvet glove fails to muffle class and race-ethnic
antagonisms, the iron fist comes out. Humans beings do what they have to do
to survive given the circumstances they are forced into. They also act in
ways to shield their children from excessive chaos and brutality. Surviving
often requires conforming to the rules that secure one's domination.

I am amazed that people are so eager to get their backs up over a Gramscian
analysis of order under slavery when the Gramscian analysis provides the
best explanation for why workers do not rise up against capitalism. Have
that many people forgotten that the majority in the capitalist core are
today exploited and oppressed in the wage-labor system and that they appear
to consent to this, even African-Americans? It seems to me to be an
unremarkable fact that systems of domination rarely rest on coercion alone.
Is it even possible that a large-scale social system could rest solely on
coercion? This is not to say that slaves did not resist their bondage in a
variety of ways. Sabotage, work slowdowns and stoppages, maroon colonies,
open rebellions, and the like show us that slaves were aware of their
condition and disapproved. But overall, the slave system was not a chaotic
system rife with rebellion. Our obligation is not to react to this fact
ideologically and condemn those who observe it, but to carefully and
thoroughly explain this fact. I can tell you that the answer is not found in
a simplistic and exclusive coercion versus consensus dichotomy.

Finally, I am not responsible for conservatives co-opting features of
Gramscian analysis to wax nostalgic over slavery and Jim Crow.

Andrew Austin
Green Bay, WI

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