(fwd from Rakesh Bhandari) reply to DMS on slavery

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Jul 16 12:47:12 MDT 2003

> Let's put aside Fogel's empirical investigation of the extent to 
> which there wasa Southern lag in industrialization and the reasons 
> for it (Charles Post seems to have written a criticism of Fogel--has 
> anyone read it?), though I don't think it's a good idea for Marxists 
> to opine on North American slavery without having read Fogel, 
> Engerman, Genovese, Kolchin, and Bowman (like George Frederickson, I 
> am especially impressed by Shearer Davis Bowman's Masters and Lords: 
> Mid Nineteenth Century Planters and Prussian Lords).


Robert Brenner was often linked with Ernesto Laclau and Eugene Genovese 
in the 1980s. Although not quite forming a school, the three were widely 
regarded as upholding a classical tough-minded version of Marxism as 
opposed to the sort of wooly-headed populism that marched under the 
banner of "dependency theory". What they shared in common was a belief 
that the "mode of production" was key. If the system did not revolve 
around free labor and did not exhibit technological innovation driven by 
the lash of competition, then it did not deserve the name of capitalism. 
Social inequality was not sufficient.

(Of the three, Brenner is the only one who still has an affiliation with 
Marxism. Laclau dumped Marxism for a version of post-Marxism called 
"Radical Democracy" that he co-developed with Chantal Mouffe. It serves 
as the ideological underpinning for much of the NGO-oriented experiments 
in "civil society" in Latin American today. Genovese's evolution was 
more extreme. He started out as a "primacy of class" Marxist with 
hostility to black nationalism and feminism of the sort found in figures 
like Todd Gitlin, but eventually broke with the radical movement 
entirely. Today he is best described as a Roman Catholic southern 
agrarian reactionary. All sharing a background in 1960s Marxism, 
Genovese, David Horowitz and Ronald Radosh are among the most active and 
impassioned enemies of the left in the USA today.)

With these connections in mind, it is interesting to turn to a paper 
written by Shearer Davis Bowman in the Oct. '80 American Historical 
Review titled "Antebellum Planters and Vormarz Junkers in Comparative 
Perspective." To set the context for his comparison, Bowman cites 
Genovese as arguing for "the genuine conservatism of the planters and 
proslavery thought by insisting upon the 'precapitalist' character of 
the Old South's 'paternalistic' master-slave relation and the consequent 
'prebourgeois' outlook of antebellum planters--'the closest thing to 
feudal lords imaginable in a nineteenth-century bourgeois republic.'"

By this criterion, the Junkers were just as 'prebourgeois.' The term 
"Junker" is derived from the Middle High German "young nobleman" and 
designates both the noble and nonnoble owners of legally privileged 
estates (Rittengüter) in Prussia's six eastern provinces, the 
breadbasket of modern Germany. Bowman identifies the similarities 
between the slave-states and these provinces in terms of class relations:

"Although the legal and racial status of slaves on a plantation was 
certainly quite different from that of the laborers on a Junker estate 
(before as well as after the end of hereditary bondage in 1807), there 
were significant parallels between the productive purposes to which 
menials on plantations and Ritterguter were put and between the ways in 
which they were governed. Each work force was subject to the personal, 
nearly despotic, authority of the owner, and each worked to produce cash 
crops for foreign and domestic markets. While Southern planters were 
growing cotton or tobacco for shipment to Liverpool or New York, for 
example, East Elbian Junkers were producing wheat or wool for shipment 
to London or Berlin. At mid-century most plantations and Ritterguter 
also achieved a high, cost-efficient level of self-sufficiency in basic 
foodstuffs as well. The functional and structural analogies between the 
plantation and the Rittergut are crucial to a comparative study of 
planters and Junkers, because these estates and their work forces 
constituted the foundations of their owners’ wealth, political 
influence, social status, and, in many instances, even their self-esteem."

While Brenner makes a strict linkage between capitalist farmers 
exploiting wage labor, Bowman points out that the Junkers were keen to 
make improvements to their land where labor was anything but free. 
Captain Carl von Wulffen-Pietzpuhl, writing in 1845, urged the creation 
of model farms so that his fellow Junkers could explore "the advancement 
of Prussia's practical agriculture". He declared that "the most 
rational" farmer managed to use "land and soil most effectively" and 
that the "most important aspect of rational agriculture" could be 
"reduced to the art of producing the cheapest dung." (And this was over 
a century in advance of the introduction of electronic mailing lists.)

The Junkers lord tended to have a view of himself as a kindly 
paterfamilias attending to the welfare of his faithful people, just like 
the American southern slave-owning class. While the slavocracy was able 
to impose its rule through outright ownership, the German oppressors had 
various labor codes--some extracted in the guise of "reforms" to keep 
his subjects in line. The proper way to regard both systems is as a 
mixture of economic control driven by the need for a capitalist gentry 
to support its life-style through the mass production of agricultural 
commodities, and political control based on forced labor. Reactionary 
authoritarian beliefs wed to militarism did not prevent these ruling 
class elites from extracting every bit of surplus from their properties 
through a combination of technological innovation and forced labor.

So were they precapitalist or capitalist?

full: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/economics/brenner_thesis.htm


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