Debating slavery

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Fri Oct 20 10:13:45 MDT 2000

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.

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.

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?"

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.

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

Louis Proyect
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