Roman proletarians and Southern "white trash"

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at
Mon Oct 30 17:00:01 MST 2000

Mine wrote:

>  > >John Ashworth analyzes the slave owners in the >South in a way akin to
>>  >your analysis of the "anti-bourgeois ruling class" >who "avoid,"
>>  >rather than "promote," accumulation at home & who >fail to modernize
>>  >the productive forces:
>I don't know much about John Ahsworth but his observations are seriously
>disturbing. So slavery in the ante-bellum South was *inhibiting*
>capitalism? Modern slavery is a pre capitalist/ archaic  mode of
>production?  Latin American plantation economy was a pre-capitalist
>economy in hands of anti-bourgeois elites "failing to modernize
>production"? This closet modernization theory is completely ahistorical
>because it assumes that Latin American underdevelopment occurred in
>isolation from the rest of the world-- international division of labor.

I'll let Nestor speak for himself about Latin America (if he gets
around to it).

As for the antebellum South & the Civil War, perhaps John Ashworth is
following Eirc Williams' & other classical Marxists' argument:

*****   In 1848 the Navigation Laws, the very heart and core of the
colonial system, were swept away by the full tide of laissez faire as
the lumber of former times.  Ricardo ridiculed the roundabout and
expensive way whereby exchanges of produce were carried on....

The capitalists had first encouraged West Indian slavery and then
helped to destroy it.  When British capitalism depended on the West
Indies, they ignored slavery or defended it.  When British capitalism
found the West Indian monopoly a nuisance, they destroyed West Indian
slavery as the first step in the destruction of West Indian
monopoly....   (Eric Williams, _Capitalism and Slavery_, Chapel Hill:
U. of North Carolina P, 1994 [originally published in 1944], pp.
168-169)   *****

*****   1.  _The decisive forces in the period of history we have
discussed are the developing economic forces_.

These economic changes are gradual, imperceptible, but they have an
irresistible cumulative effect.  Men, pursuing their interests, are
rarely aware of the ultimate results of their activity.  _The
commercial capitalism of the eighteenth century developed the wealth
of Europe by means of slavery and monopoly.  But in so doing it
helped to create the industrial capitalism of the nineteenth century,
which turned around and destroyed the power of commercial capitalism,
slavery, and all its works_.  Without a grasp of _these economic
changes_ the history of the period is meaningless.  (Eric Williams,
_Capitalism and Slavery_, Chapel Hill: U. of North Carolina P, 1994
[originally published in 1944], p. 210)   *****

Because Williams gives causal primacy to the development of
industrial capitalism & the desire to destroy the mercantile system
in the abolition of slavery, he discounts the work of white
abolitionists (see Chapter 11), while at the same time highlighting
slaves' own resistance to slavery as a significant cause of the
abolition.  In the case of Ashworth, he may argue that while slavery
helped domesticate the so-called New World & fostered the growth of
industrial capitalism through its produce, slavery doomed the
American South itself to economic backwardness relative to the North;
he argues further that the Civil War should be seen as America's
"bourgeois revolution," though unfortunately not as democratic &
egalitarian as the French & Haitian Revolutions.

*****   Callaloo 20.4 (1997) 791-799

Reckoning with Williams:
Capitalism and Slavery and the Reconstruction of Early American History *

Russell R. Menard

...I'll now move on to the third Williams thesis, almost as
controversial as the second, that both the colonial trades and the
Caribbean colonies declined in the aftermath of the American
Revolution, their importance to England's economy waned, and the
abolition of the slave trade and emancipation of slaves in the
British West Indies were driven not by philanthropy or
humanitarianism, but by economic motives within England.  For the
sake of simplicity, I'll divide that thesis into two propositions and
deal with each in turn, beginning with the decline of the West Indies
argument.  Since the publication of Seymour Drescher's Econocide, few
historians any longer defend Williams' argument that the British
sugar islands were in severe economic decline when England abolished
first the slave trade and then slavery.

Econocide stood this particular proposition on its head, arguing
fairly persuasively that the islands were still profitable and
expanding, when the British government did them in by abolishing
first the African slave trade and later slavery itself.  Despite
Drescher's confidence that he has closed the case, it is not clear
that this issue is yet settled.  Indeed, research in progress by
David Ryden, suggests that the debate over the decline of the West
Indies may be about to move to another level. 22   Indeed, Ryden
begins with the observation that so far the debate has been carried
on at the macro-level, and with macro-data, and that it would be
useful to examine the decline hypotheses from the perspective of
individual planters using micro-level data.  Since there is a rich
store of such data available in the islands, Ryden's approach ought
to reveal not just whether the sugar industry in the Caribbean as a
whole was profitable, but should identify the determinants of
profitability for particular plantations, while at the same time
opening up the opportunity to explore how planters adjusted to the
new conditions imposed upon them by rapidly changing metropolitan

The second of these propositions is Williams' effort to explain the
abolition movement in terms of economic interests rather than
philanthropic or humanitarian concerns; as Williams put it, the
capitalists had first encouraged slavery and then helped to destroy
it.  This proposition has also been sharply criticized, sometimes
dismissed as "reductionist."  Be that as it may, Williams' argument
seems entirely consistent with David Brion Davis' "main theme that
antislavery cannot be divorced from the economic changes that were
intensifying social conflicts and heightening class consciousness;
that in Britain it was part of a larger ideology that helped to
ensure stability while accommodating society to political and social
change." 23  In this view, abolitionism was an ideology that served
to justify and legitimize the emerging capitalist elite and the new
forms of exploitation of free labor in England's factories and gave
England's ruling classes a chance to claim moral leadership by
directing a reform movement that threatened none of their vital

"The antislavery movement," Davis explains, "like [Adam] Smith's
political economy reflected the needs and values of the emerging
capitalist order.  Smith provided theoretical justification for the
belief that all classes and segments of society share a natural
identity of interests.  The antislavery movement, while absorbing the
ambivalent emotions of the age, was essentially devoted to a
practical demonstration of the same reassuring message." 24  Calling
Williams "crude" and "reductionist" will not change the fact that
this argument is entirely consistent with his approach to the issues.
While Williams might be accused of reductionism, he at least
addresses what ought to be the central problem in understanding
abolitionism by trying to come to terms with what role the behavior
and aspirations of slaves had in the process, a concern missing
entirely from the recent and much celebrated American Historical
Review debate on the subject. 25

In fact, Williams moves toward, if he does not actually make, a
distinction between the abolition of slavery, an abstract, general
legal matter accomplished by politicians in the metropolitan capitols
of the Atlantic economy, and the emancipation of slaves, an intensely
practical matter, the work of particular slaves in the plantation
districts, a distinction that is likely to dominate future efforts to
understand the fall of American slave regimes. 26  Given that
Williams' central purpose was to demystify the British abolition
movement, so that the example of the saints could no longer be
invoked to justify England's continued political control over the
islands, it is hard to deny that he carried his point; at least
people would think twice when confronted with assertions that the
abolitionists were completely disinterested humanitarians....

[Endnotes omitted; the entire article is available at
<>.] *****

Evidently, many historians, since Seymour Drescher's _Econocide_,
disagree with Williams here, though the issue is, as Russell R.
Menard says, far from settled.  What do you think?


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