Ex-slaves and wage labor

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Jul 29 20:34:37 MDT 2003

As I have stated previously, Charles Post's article in the latest Journal
of Agrarian Change is an attempt to apply the Brenner thesis to the
American Civil War. On one level this would seem to make a lot of sense
since the issues seemed posed starkly in terms of free wage labor and the
ambitions of the industrial bourgeoisie to introduce mechanization and
deepen capitalist tendencies already present. The class forces that Brenner
identified as driving the capitalist transformation in the English
countryside of the 15th century would also seem to be driving the war
against slavery.

As it turns out, this schema left out one of the most critical elements,
namely the aspirations of the recently emancipated class of
African-American slaves who had little interest in wage labor, no matter
how much premium their Northern benefactors put on it. They wanted to
become small proprietors, not wage laborers. As Marxist historian Jonathan
Wiener points out in "Social Origins of the New South: Alabama 1860-1885",
the last thing that appeared to be on their minds was fulfilling the
expectations or projections of V.1 of Capital, or at least a dogmatic
interpretation of it.


Why were Alabama planters and their counterparts across the South faced
with this labor shortage in the immediate postwar years? The census shows
that Alabama's black population increased by 10 percent between 1860 and
1870, and Ransom and Sutch have demonstrated that the death rate among
blacks did not increase noticeably during and just after the war, nor did
freedmen migrate out of the state. They conclude that the number of
freedmen living in rural areas of the South in 1870 was at least no smaller
than it had been in 1860. Kolchin's careful study of migration patterns of
Alabama blacks in the immediate postwar years comes to the same conclusion,
showing that the black population increased in three of twelve black belt
counties, that it increased in one of those by 9 percent, and that in the
other nine it stayed the same. The only Alabama counties to lose black
population between 1866 and 1870 were outside the black belt.

The most important cause of the labor shortage in 1865 and 1866 seems to
have been the freedmen's refusal to work for wages, which was in turn based
on their hope of becoming landowners. The Joint Congressional Committee on
Reconstruction reported the freedmen had a "strong desire, amounting almost
to a passion ... to obtain land." In the words of the Montgomery
Advertiser, "the negro is ravenous for land." Genovese quotes a marvelously
shocked plantation mistress who reported, "Our most trusted servant . . .
claims the plantation as his own." Willard Warner, Alabama's radical
senator, later recalled, "The negro, after he was emancipated, seemed to
have an intuition that led him in the right direction. The first thing he
wanted to do immediately after his emancipation was to get land." A Union
officer wrote that "all concurred in the opposition to the contract system."

Louis Proyect, Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org

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