Forwarded from Nestor (planters)

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Aug 25 09:43:58 MDT 2003

Since in a sense the whole debate on the class character of Southern US
planters bears on the issue of the class character of the Argentinean
ruling class (the "oligarchy"), I think I may safely have a couple of
useful things to say on that thread, before I relapse into respectful

Lou Paulsen wrote:

"This is meant to demonstrate that the southern planters were not really
capitalist, a question which is begged in the first sentence by
counterposing 'planters' with 'capitalists'.  Even assuming that Post is
right and that southern planters used different methods of management of
their chattel farm laborers than northern manufacturers did, I have no
idea how this proves that the planters are not capitalists, any more
than a similar look today at agribusinesses employing immigrant workers
would prove that they are not capitalist."

The Southern planters were a definitely capitalist ruling class. What is
at stake is whether they were a "bourgeoisie", in the deep historic
sense of the capitalist model as established by the English experience
and summed up by Marx.  That is, as a bourgeoisie that can establish a
self-centered capitalist formation or not.

"Of course it makes a great deal of difference to the worker whether she
is being treated as a proletarian (a fellow participant in the market
with the capitalist) or as a chattel, like a draft horse.  But I don't
see a lot of evidence that northern capitalists ever thought that a
southern slave capitalist was a different sort of person, a member of an
alien class, a class enemy, "merely" because he bought and sold Black
workers as if they were horses."

Certainly, Northern capitalists found it hard to see the divide between
them and their Southern "counterparts", much in the way the Argentinean
bourgeois does not see the differences between her or him and the local
oligarchs. But there is a basic difference, not necessarily linked to
the ways in which the producing class is treated.  House slaves for
example received better treatment than any wage laborer in the North,
including most hired servants.

The divide exists, however. While the Northern bourgeois was bent on
expanding production by investment of surplus labor into the productive
process, thus earning an increased amount of surplus labor by the
mechanisms of relative surplus value, the Southern capitalist was
interested in expanding profits by grabbing more land or slaves.  While
the Northern bourgeois needed a sustained level of mass consumption for
the wares produced in the factories and mills, the Southern capitalist
was required to freeze a good deal of its capital in human chattel.  One
of the laws of this mode of production, strongly underlined by Marx, was
technical backwardness (on Capital, I, there are some ironic passages
where Marx shows that humans deprived of any dignity systematically
destroy and mistreat tools and animals under their own might, so as to
reassert their own humanity _con amore_  -lovingly-).

Thus, a Northerner bourgeois was -from an objective point of view-
interested in destroying the competitive Southern, chattel slavery,
capitalist, even though he could not be aware of it but on flimsy (?)
moral grounds.  Worse off were the non-capitalist layers of the North,
particularly free farmers in the West. Once again, history found a
Hegelian turn out of the conflict, and a national front of many classes,
headed by Lincoln, did what the bourgeois needed and did not dare (maybe
not even dared to recognize) that they had to do.  If American
capitalism was to expand to its fullness, then the Southern kind of
capitalism, a rentistic, dependent (on England) capitalism, had to be

In this sense, "northern manufacturers and southern slaveholders were
locked in irreconcilable life-and-death conflict" even though nortern
manufacturers were so coward that they did not even think of it.  All
this is very well expressed in the reports and comments by Marx and
Engels on the American Civil War.


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