Capitalism, slavery and the Brenner thesis; part 2

dmschanoes dmschanoes at
Sat Aug 30 18:07:23 MDT 2003

The Portuguese however, the first European country to engage in the slave
trade for commercial purposes, and a country that transported more slaves
than Great Britain, did NOT regard Africans as subhuman.

I think it's particularly unfruitful to refute a historical analysis based
upon ideologies of some of the participants of that period.

The view of Africans as not quite human was articulated by those who had a
property interest in slavery.  Obviously, slavery existed coincidentally
with developing capitalist relations of property and social production.
Obviously British landlords could and did hold slave plantation is the
colonies, and free farms in Britain.  Sow why are we surpised about their
particularly vicious ideologies?

Likewise, why should the affinity for Northern mercantile interests (NY,
Boston, Providence, Ct. etc) where slave trading ships were built,
outfitted, capitalized through sale of shares, and dispatched diminish the
revolutionary necessity of the Civil War?


----- Original Message -----
From: "Louis Proyect" <lnp3 at>
To: <marxism at>; <pen-l at>
Cc: <rakeshb at>; <nblackstock at>; <jjmarlin at>
Sent: Saturday, August 30, 2003 1:57 PM
Subject: Capitalism, slavery and the Brenner thesis; part 2

> I want to begin this article by thanking Mark Lause, American historian
> socialist who I had the misfortune to be on the other side of a bitter
> faction fight with in the mid-1970s. I much prefer the current
> relationship. Mark was of enormous help in supplying the texts that much
> this article relies on, although I am not sure that he will be happy with
> the analysis.
> In her July-August 1998 Monthly Review defense of the Brenner thesis
> (, Ellen Meiksins Wood singles
> John Locke as the philosopher par excellence of agrarian capitalism. With
> Locke's emphasis on "improvement", which revolved around soil cultivation
> techniques, etc., he stood as an implacable foe of feudal or precapitalist
> waste, presumably including chattel slavery.
> However, the slave masters of the New World did not quite see things that
> way. According to James Oakes in "Slavery and Freedom", not only were they
> receptive to Enlightenment ideals; they played a vanguard role in adapting
> Locke to the revolution of 1776. Oakes writes:
> "The writings of eighteenth-century Southerners were steeped in Lockean
> premises, never more thoroughly than during the American Revolution. 'Men
> in a State of Nature are absolutely free and independent of one another as
> to sovereign Jurisdiction,' Richard Bland of Virginia wrote in 1766. They
> enter into society 'by their own consent,' he explained, just as 'they
> a natural Right to quit the Society of which they are Members . . . [to]
> recover their natural Freedom and Independence.'" (p. 60)
> Indeed, Locke, a slave-owner himself, wrote the state constitution of
> Carolina in 1669 that stipulated: "But yet no slave shall hereby be
> exempted from that civil dominion his master hath over him, but be in all
> things in the same state and condition he was In before."
> If the Brenner thesis posits market coercion as a sine qua non for
> capitalism, and if John Locke is the quintessential philosopher for the
> newly emerging system, then how does one reconcile this contradiction? The
> answer to this question highlights an essential flaw in the Brenner
> namely its failure to appreciate the role of racism in the development of
> capitalism in the New World. Specifically, if indigenous people and
> Africans are seen as subhuman, then Enlightenment ideas about freedom,
> including the freedom to compete in labor markets, do not really apply to
> them. You might as well talk about the right of a mule to vote or teach
> Some of the most advanced thinkers in Great Britain believed that Africans
> were a species midway between apes and white men. In a footnote to "Of
> National Characters", David Hume writes:
> "I am apt to suspect the negroes and in general all other species of men
> (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to
> the whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion
> white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No
> ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences... Not to
> our colonies, there are Negroe slaves dispersed all over Europe, of which
> none ever discovered any symptoms of ingenuity, tho' low people, without
> education, will start up amonst us, and distinguish themselves in every
> profession. In JAMAICA indeed they talk of one negroe as a man of parts
> learning; but 'tis likely he is admired for very slender accomplishments
> like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly".
> If opposition to slavery distinguished the North from the South, it cannot
> be assumed that abolitionism was characterized universally by a belief in
> racial equality. More often than not, paternalism was the guiding
> principle. Slaves, who were seen as tainted by their environment, required
> assistance from above. While Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin,
> Life among the Lowly" (!) was an impassioned attack on slavery, it could
> not quite transcend the racism that surrounded her:
> "The scenes of this story, as its title indicates, lie among a race
> hitherto ignored by the associations of polite and refined society; an
> exotic race, whose ancestors, born beneath a tropic sun, brought with
> and perpetuated to their descendants, a character so essentially unlike
> hard and dominant Anglo-Saxon race, as for many years to have won from it
> only misunderstanding and contempt."
> (
> If misguided paternalistic and religious feelings fueled abolitionist
> opposition to slavery, it was far more than could be expected from a
> Northern ruling class so economically integrated with the South. In
> one of Philip Foner's "Business and Slavery: The New York Merchants and
> Irrepressible Conflict", we discover that Southern slave-owners got the
> carpet treatment in New York City:
> "In the years just before the Civil War, it was customary for anti-slavery
> writers and speakers to refer to New York City as 'the prolongation of the
> South' where 'ten thousand cords of interests are linked with the Southern
> Slaveholder.' If, by some magic, one of the countless visitors to the
> 'World of Tomorrow' had suddenly been transported back to the New York
> World's Fair of 1853, he would have had no difficulty in discovering the
> reasons for these remarks. Had he arrived in the city late in June or
> in July, he would have noticed that the lobbies of the Astor, St.
> Fifth Avenue, St. Denis, Clarendon, and Metropolitan hotels were thronged
> with Southern merchants and planters. The pages of the morning and evening
> newspapers, he would have observed, were filled with advertisements
> addressed to these Southerners, urging them to visit this or that store,
> inspect the latest assortments of dry goods, hardware, boots and shoes,
> other types of merchandise.
> "Had the visitor remained in the city until September, he would have seen
> the daily departures of packets for the South, burdened with huge cargoes
> of dry goods, boots and shoes, hardware, clothing, liquors and even
> butter, and cheese. The same vessels, he would have noticed, soon returned
> to New York, this time loaded with cotton, tobacco, tar, resin,
> wheat, pork and molasses. By the time our visitor was ready to return to
> the Twentieth Century, he should have been quite ready to agree that New
> York was 'almost as dependent upon Southern slavery as Charleston itself.'
> Perhaps he might even have agreed with James Dunmore De Bow, who said in
> reply to a query by the London Times, asking, 'What would New York be
> without slavery?'"
> Clashing economic interests between the Northern and Southern bourgeoisie
> would eventually lead to civil war. The political instrument of the North
> was the multiclass Republican Party. The conservative wing of the party
> expressed the conciliatory impulses of the New York and Philadelphia big
> bourgeoisie, which sought economic development within the framework of a
> unified nation-state above all, while the radical wing was the voice of
> middle-class farmer, professional and small manufacturer motivated by both
> religious fervor against slavery and a desire that it shared with the
> conservatives to see unfettered economic development. The Democratic Party
> was also a multiclass formation. It contained many working-class voters in
> the North that felt oppressed by "free" economic development (i.e.
> capitalism), Bourbon planters in the South and some Northern bourgeois
> elements such as the kind described by Philip Foner.
> Conservative Republicans formerly associated with the patrician Whig Party
> were driven less by opposition to slavery than by a desire to push forward
> legislative changes blocked by congressional Democrats. They saw the
> of the slave-owners as a way of overcoming opposition to their ambitious
> goals, including a Pacific railroad. Hegemony over the Federal Government
> was what they were looking for, not the emancipation of slaves. As a
> the big bourgeoisie was represented in both parties. The Democrats were
> home to the "New York Central Railroad Group" led by Samuel J. Tilden,
> which eventually bolted to the Republicans and rallied around Andrew
> Johnson, a president whose conciliatory attitudes toward the former
> slave-owners led to his impeachment. Within conservative Republican ranks
> you found the owners of the New York Times and Anthony J. Drexel, the
> Philadelphia financier whose company would eventually merge with Burnham--
> to crash and burn during the insider trading scandals of the 1980s. The
> affinity of conservative ruling class figures for both parties has not
> changed much in the intervening century.
> If the radical Republicans' opposition to slavery was innocent of
> Machiavellian calculations, there were still limits to their understanding
> of how freedom could be achieved. They saw the slave system as an evil,
> the emphasis was in quarantining it from new territories rather than
> rooting it out of the South. Moreover, they were totally committed to
> capitalist ideology and saw deliverance in terms of a Horatio Alger novel.
> Slavery, whether chattel in the South or wage-based in the North, was a
> fate to be avoided at all costs through hard work, perseverance, thrift,
> belief in god and a puritanical life-style. Slaves in the South were seen
> to be totally deficient in these beliefs and badly in need of uplift
> being integrated with their more enlightened white brethren. The last
> that the radicals were interested in was opening up the western
> to a flood of black freedmen from the South.
> Despite class differences, radicals found it easy to ally with the Anthony
> J. Drexels of the world since the ultimate goal was to lift every citizen
> into the propertied class. Labor historian David Montgomery sized them up
> accurately in "Beyond Equality":
> "Radical politicians, in other words, were more likely to be aspiring
> advocates of the manufacturers than actual members of that group, and
> views influenced more by an effort to win and retain the approval of their
> clients than by direct economic interest. To be sure, many established
> politicians of all stripes invested some of their earnings in
> manufacturing. Many more invested in commercial enterprises for the
> compelling reason that the latter were more likely to offer stock for
> and the investor was not obliged to assume the risks of a partner.
> Correspondingly, entrepreneurs were unlikely to be vociferous--or even
> articulate--on major political questions."
> The vision of the radicals was to create a United States that embodied the
> values of New England farming villages writ large. Social groups that did
> not meld easily into that nationalist schema were given short shrift,
> whether they were brought over on slave ships or came here of their own
> free will in search of work.
> Sadly, a toxic strain of nativism ran through the Republican Party, no
> doubt a function of the influx of members from the Know-Nothing Party.
> soil ideology and xenophobia dovetailed neatly as party members sought to
> keep the United States free from foreign rabble, especially Catholics.
> as the plantation system was seen as an alien culture of epicene planters
> and their barely civilized subjects, so was Rome and Catholicism. Radical
> John P. Hale opposed the annexation of Cuba because the American system of
> government could "only be maintained . on the principle of Protestant
> liberty." (Philip Foner, "Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men", p. 228)
> Eventually the sharpening of the struggle against slavery would reduce the
> role of nativism in the Republican Party, but only because it became a
> political liability. To win the votes of Protestant Germans, a stronghold
> of anti-slavery convictions, such appeals had to be minimized.
> White nationalism also took the form of "colonization" schemes that would
> solve the "Negro problem" through physical removal. Republican Senator
> Lyman Trumbull of Illinois, speaking for "the white man's party" sought
> settle the territories with free white men." He added that the blacks
> "should not be among us" and that "it would be better for them to go
> elsewhere." Radicals such as Gerrit Smith and Theodore Parker were
> enough to stress that emigration would be completely voluntary. In 1860
> radical Republican Senator Benjamin F. Wade of Ohio tried to get
> from Central American states to accept slaves from the United States. This
> would open up "vast tracts of the most fertile land, in a climate
> congenial to that class of men, where the negro will be predominant." "...
> [T]hey will go of themselves and relieve us of the burden. They will be so
> far removed from us that they cannot form a disturbing element in our
> political economy." (George Frederickson, "The Black Image in the White
> Mind", p. 149)
> Once the war started, it would put the Republican commitment to social
> revolution to the test. As Civil War historian Louis Gerteis points out in
> "From Contraband to Freedman: Federal Policy Toward Southern Blacks
> 1861-1865", Reconstruction began for blacks in 1861 when Union forces
> occupied positions in Tidewater Virginia and in the Sea Islands of South
> Carolina. In the manner that Napoleon and Stalin's armies carried out
> "revolutions from above", one might expect the Union Army to function as
> instrument of economic change. If the intention was to destroy the
> plantation system, then what better guarantee of success would be
> confiscation of the land and distribution to the freedmen.
> When General Benjamin Butler first ran into runaway slaves in 1861, he
> termed them "contraband" in the same sense as seized drug-dealer's
> airplanes, etc. Despite his radical credentials, Butler was not inclined
> tamper with the peculiar institution in southern Louisiana. His goal was
> restore Louisiana to the Union by assuaging the fears of the planters who
> were "well-disposed toward the Union, only fearing lest their negroes
> should not be let alone . . . " Confiscation of slaves would have been in
> Butler's opinion, an "injustice to the bona fide loyal creditor, whose
> interest the Government will doubtless consider." Another factor
> recommending the return of slaves to their masters was his fear of black
> rebellion. He outlined his thoughts on slavery in a letter to fellow
> radical Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase: "Be sure that I shall
> the negro with as much tenderness as possible but I assure you it is quite
> impossible to free him here and now without a San Domingo. A single
> from me would cause every white man's throat be cut in this city.
> Accumulated hate has been piled up here between master and servant, until
> it is fearful. . . There is no doubt that an insurrection is only
> by our Bayonets."
> (William F. Messner, "Black Violence and White Response: Louisiana, 1862",
> The Journal of Southern History, Feb., 1975, p. 24)
> Although many blacks began to farm the land on plantations whose owners
> fled in the same manner that others would flee Cuba or Nicaragua years
> later, Butler made plans during the war to return the land back to their
> rightful owners. His main interest was in getting blacks to work in chain
> gangs at coolie wages so as to support the war effort. Even after the
> Emancipation Declaration was announced, Butler had little incentive to
> attack the racial and social status quo. But without radical land reform,
> blacks would simply lack the economic power to provide a basis for
> political independence. Lockean property rights seemed to stop short of
> freedman's doorstep.
> Lawrence Powell points out in "New Masters" that the wartime contract
> system supervised by Benjamin Butler represented "a wholesale infringement
> of the rights of free labor".
> "[B]y fixing wages it denied a laborer the right to bargain as a free
> with his employers; by obligating a laborer to contract for a year, it
> seriously restricted his freedom of movement and his freedom to change
> employers. The entire apparatus was really a system of vagrancy laws that
> left black people with the choice of working on the plantations or
> on the public works. And it was even bolstered by such familiar methods of
> slave control as the pass system and patrols (led by U.S. provost
> marshals), even though corporal punishment was forbidden or delegated to
> military authorities."
> Butler's class loyalties were also on display when it came to another form
> of contraband, namely cotton trade with the rebel enemy. With the red
> carpet treatment afforded slave-masters in antebellum New York City, it
> should come as no surprise that big businessmen from the North would seek
> ways to maintain commercial ties with the rebel enemy, just as people like
> Henry Ford and Prescott Bush would find ways to do business with the Nazis
> 80 years later.
> In September 1863, Secretary of State Salmon Chase set up special agencies
> to handle sales of cotton from the Confederacy to union-held territory.
> After the owner of the cotton pledged to support the Union, he would
> receive 25 percent of the proceeds from the sale and rest after the war.
> Needless to say, such a pledge was not worth very much. The main
> seemed to be commercial gain rather than social and political
> transformation of the plantation system. One of the main promoters of New
> England textile mill interests was one Edward Atkinson, who persuaded
> Lincoln to buy up "all the cotton that was offered, take it to New York
> City and sell it for gold". In other words, the antebellum economic
> relationship would be re-instituted in anticipation of the full-scale
> reintegration of the South that would take place in the waning years of
> Reconstruction.
> Trading with the enemy was a very lucrative business and Benjamin Butler
> was as energetic in promoting his own interests as he was in tracking down
> black people.
> "From the evidence available, there can be no doubt that a very extensive
> trade with the Confederacy was carried on in the Department of Virginia
> North Carolina during Butler's tenure of command. This trade was extremely
> profitable for northern merchants and their coadjutors, and was of
> significant help to the Confederate Bureau of Subsistence. It was
> with Butler's encouragement, and a considerable part of it was in the
> of his relatives and supporters."
> (Ludwell Johnson, "Contraband Trade During the Last Year of the Civil
> The Mississippi Valley Historical Review", March 1963, p. 646)
> In my next post I will deal with Reconstruction and why it failed. I can
> say right now that patterns on display during the war will explain its
> failure afterwards, and not some backtracking from a non-existent
> commitment to black social and economic rights.
> Louis Proyect, Marxism mailing list:

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