Sharecropping and wage labor

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed Jul 30 16:55:54 MDT 2003

When I first encountered the Brenner thesis with its rather austere 
definition of capitalism based on free wage labor, my first reaction was to 
take a look at modern German and Japan, which I knew from previous studies 
had incorporated all sorts of unfree labor as they developed into modern 
capitalist societies. This led me to look at a paper written by Shearer 
Davis Bowman in the Oct. '80 American Historical Review titled "Antebellum 
Planters and Vormarz Junkers in Comparative Perspective."

By Brenner's definition, the Junkers were precapitalist. 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."

As it turns out, the southern plantation system never really developed into 
a free wage labor institution, even after the victory of the North--despite 
the fact that free labor ideology justified the war in the eyes of radical 
Republicans. In no time at all--even before the end of reconstruction--the 
planters had reintroduced non-economic forms of labor discipline that by 
definition fall outside the rubric of the Brenner thesis. This is from the 
conclusion of chapter two (Freedmen and Plantation Labor) of Jonathan 
Wiener's "Social Origins of the New South". It ties together some of the 
themes that I have been emphasizing in my posts on the Brenner thesis and 
would seem to knock the legs from beneath Charles Post's attempt to apply 
this thesis to the Southern plantation economy.


This coercive mode of labor control gave southern agriculture its 
distinctive character. Sharecropping was a form of "bound" labor, with 
restrictions on the free market in labor that did not prevail in fully 
developed capitalist societies such as that of the North. There, the market 
mechanism allocated "free" labor; capitalists competed freely for labor, 
and laborers were free to move in response to better offers. The 
sharecropper was not fully free in this sense, and thus was distinct from 
both the northern proletarian and the free capitalist farmer. Similarly, 
the planters' more directly coercive methods of labor allocation and 
control marked them off from a genuine bourgeoisie.

In this respect the contrast between sharecropping and the gang system of 
the immediate postwar plantation is illuminating. In 1865 and 1866, those 
who provided only their labor were paid wages in the form of a share of the 
crop, but they labored in gangs, under overseers, on a plantation that was 
organized as a single centralized productive unit. The division of this 
centralized unit into small tenant farms, the substitution of family labor 
for gang labor, the end of constant supervision by overseers and the 
substitution of intermittent visits by the landlord himself, the loss of 
economies of scale and the end of centralized management all these marked, 
not the creation of large-scale, thoroughly capitalist farms, but precisely 
a move away from a mature capitalist organization of agriculture 
development that preserves and intensifies the authoritarian and repressive 
elements of traditional social relations.

The possibility that the South could take the classic capitalist road was 
not ignored in the immediate postwar period. Some of the most astute 
southerners pushed for precisely such a solution to the problems of postwar 
agricultural adjustment. The Selma Southern Argus, for one, argued 
tirelessly during the late 1860s that the planters should end their 
reliance on labor-intensive methods of producing cotton, and instead 
diversify crops, introduce stock raising, and substitute labor-saving 
machinery for black tenant labor.

The planter class, rooted as it was in the antebellum elite, chose the 
other solution, the Prussian Road. The Black Codes passed in 1865-1867 
expressed that choice; temporarily abolished by the Radicals, were 
resurrected by the planter regimes that regained power in the seventies. 
And once the institutions of a labor-repressive system of agriculture had 
been established, the planters had little incentive to mechanize or 
introduce more rational techniques to increase efficiency and productivity. 
Thus while wheat-growing capitalist farmers in the North were transforming 
their productive techniques with a technological revolution, southern 
sharecroppers in 1900 relied on hand tools and mule power; the result was 
southern economic stagnation, as crop outputs, yields per acre, and 
agricultural technology changed little from year to year.

Too much of the recent debate has treated southern economic and political 
development as separate questions. The South's characteristic poverty and 
political oppression arose out of the same social relations: the Prussian 
Road, with its dominant planter class and its labor-repressive system of 
agricultural production, which posed a major obstacle not only to economic 
development, but also to democracy, to the political freedoms present in 
the North and so glaringly absent from the South.

Louis Proyect, Marxism mailing list:

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