Capitalism, slavery and the Brenner thesis: part 3

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Sep 1 11:12:55 MDT 2003

While scholarly literature has documented the political gains made by 
freedmen during Reconstruction such as the right to run for office, the 
focus in this article will be on social and economic criteria since the 
term "bourgeois-democratic revolution" does after all address class 
relations in general and land redistribution specifically.

The French revolution, which is understood by most Marxists as the classic 
bourgeois-democratic revolution, resulted in radical land redistribution 
and peasant small proprietorship. In a subsequent article in this series 
tensions between this model and the Brenner large estate model will become 
obvious within the context of a larger discussion of the "agrarian 
question", but for now we will accept radical land reform as a given.

Leaving aside the size of a farm or plantation, Reconstruction poses major 
problems for the Brenner thesis since it engendered forms of labor 
exploitation that do correspond to the "free labor" model. Although the 
avowed purpose of the Republican Party was to foster such a development, it 
was undermined from the very beginning by the refusal of the Northern 
bourgeoisie to break the back of racist resistance. Since the North enjoyed 
overwhelming military and economic superiority, we must ask why it failed 
to follow through. If there was a "Thermidor", what were the pressures on 
the North? Or might an alternative explanation be that no Thermidor was 
necessary since a genuine social revolution had not taken place?

While I would recommend Eric Foner's "Reconstruction: America's Unfinished 
Revolution 1863-1877" as the definitive study of this period, his 
discussion of "The Economics of Freedom" in Chapter Three leaves something 
to be desired. Acknowledging that land ownership would have "corresponded 
to the traditional republican ideal of a society of small producers," Foner 
questions the viability of such a thing, especially since the freed slaves 
were far more interested in subsistence agriculture than commercial 
production. He says that in the absence of credit guarantees and access to 
markets, the hold of small farmers--whether black or white-- on the land 
would be marked by "precariousness" and be a "hollow victory".

It is disturbing that former slave-owners identified the lack of credit in 
the same terms as Eric Foner. They saw their large plantations as the 
salvation of freedmen who did not know to look after themselves, especially 
if given their own land. One planter argued that to subdivide plantations 
would require credit that was simply unavailable since there was "no sale 
for large tracts of land, and the multitude who want[ed] small tracts 
[had] no money to pay for them." (Staughton Lynd, "Reconstruction", p. 112)

However, that was also the case in the French Revolution. The 
always-perceptive James Farmelant had the following to say in an exchange 
over the 19th century French peasantry with the late Jim Blaut on Marxmail:

"Marx also pointed out that a good portion of France's peasantry was in the 
process of being squeezed out of their farms. Like American small farmers 
they were forced to borrow money in order to keep their operations going 
but they were often subject to usurious interest rates. French agriculture 
experienced a kind of boom-bust cycle, and every time there was a bust more 
and more peasants would lose their lands. It is true that the French 
Revolution had liberated the peasants and gave them their own land. 
However, by the 1840s many of them were in danger of losing it, while a 
smaller number of well to do peasants were prospering and buying up the 
lands of their more unfortunate brethren. The bankers who lent them money 
and the merchants who sold them supplies and who marketed their produce of 
course prospered."

Yet would anybody use the excuse of past failures for a lukewarm attitude 
toward radical land reform in Dixie or Nicaragua or anywhere else? I 
strongly suspect that a class of black yeoman farmers in the South would 
have been an encouragement to their white brothers and sisters throughout 
the country. The refusal to confiscate plantation land merely reinforced 
reactionary tendencies in the country that would eventually conspire to end 
social reforms in the North that were seen as a counterpart of 
Reconstruction in the South. The relationship between economics and 
politics is highly dialectical and land reform should not been seen 
strictly in a functional manner.

In the early years of Reconstruction blacks rebelled against the kind of 
gang labor that people like General Benjamin Butler were forcing on them 
and that reminded them of slavery. When they learned that confiscation and 
land redistribution were not on the agenda, they opted for sharecropping, a 
compromise solution that gave them independence and relief from labor gang 
overseers, who more often than not were the same men who made their life 
hell during slavery. On the other side of the coin, sharecropping relieved 
the plantation owner from the costs of heavy labor supervision. They also 
got labor stability since a sharecropper would rely on the labor of his 
entire family to deliver cotton, rice or other commodities to the planter.

It should be understood, however, that Federal troops played a role in 
promoting sharecropping at the outset--long before the ex-slave owners 
became convinced of its necessity. In 1862 the US army had control of the 
Natchez district in Mississippi where it found itself in position of 
contraband cotton. Concerned primarily with the war effort rather than 
social transformation, the officers viewed runaway slaves as a means to an 
end of raising revenue.

When these blacks refused to return to the hated fields and work in labor 
gangs, Colonel Samuel Thomas came up with a sharecropping scheme that 
supposedly would give the freedmen a step up. Although Thomas was regarded 
as one of the most radical land commissioners in Mississippi, he could not 
conceive of redistribution--the one measure that could deliver true rather 
than formal emancipation. After the army got out of the land management 
business, the Freedmen's Bureau picked up where it left off. It too 
fostered sharecropping and for pretty much the same reason: it was a way of 
controlling black labor. (Ronald Davis, "The US Army and the Origins of 
Sharecropping in the Natchez District--a Case Study", Journal of Negro 
History, Jan. 1977)

Neither Foner, nor other historians as far as I can tell, place 
sharecropping into broader historical context as a form of labor 
exploitation. According to Foner, the planter saw it as a form of wage 
labor, while the ex-slave saw themselves as "partners in the crop". Neither 
understanding really gets to the heart of the system.

Sharecropping is as old as recorded history and coexisted with slavery as a 
form of labor exploitation in ancient societies such as Rome. In second 
century Rome Pliny the Younger contemplated a shift from a slave-run estate 
to sharecropping because of "declining returns from his north Italian 
farms". This is from a letter to T.J. Byres by G. St. Croix; cited in 
Byres's "Sharecropping in Historical Context", which is part of a 
collection titled "Sharecropping and Sharecroppers". St. Croix's letter 
considers sharecropping to represent a stage in:

"the intermediate period ... between the general use of slave labour as the 
principal way in which the propertied class obtained its surplus, and 
large-scale serfdom, which ... did not come into existence until the very 
end of the third century and in some areas was not complete until the late 
fourth century (as in Palestine) or even the early fifth (as perhaps in 

He even notes the "partnership" aspect to this form of labor exploitation, 
stating "The share-cropper [colonius partiarius] has a sort of partnership, 
and shares both the profit and loss with the landlord."

If it seems odd that Reconstruction would end up with a form of 
exploitation that had been around since the Roman Empire, it might have 
been expected since slavery itself was another hallmark of the Roman 
economy. As Brazilian sociologist Carlos Rebello noted on Marxmail, such 
"antiquated" forms were given new class content when deployed in capitalist 

"The form historically found to do that [begin capital accumulation] was in 
Brazil as well in the American South to tie the manpower to a single 
directing management center, by means of the re-invention of --chain-gang 
slave labor-- which in Europe had disappeared well before the demise of the 
Roman Empire, when chain-gangs had been replaced by generalized tenancy 
('colonate'). The resumption of this most archaic form of labor-management, 
tied as it was to commodity-production responded to specifically capitalist 
needs and has nothing to do with historical backwardness 'strictu sensu'. 
In Spanish speaking Latin America, depending on place, we have the same 
process (as in the Caribbean, the Peruvian coastal line) or then, in Mexico 
and upland Peru, a form of servitude including centralized management of 
the Amerindian 'serfs' in the interest of capitalist production (peonaje, 

If sharecropping resulted from a temporary stalemate in the class struggle, 
the planters would soon gain the advantage through a Northern indifference 
that would eventually be transformed into betrayal. From the very 
beginning, despite the presence of Federal troops and black political 
power, attacks on black labor were mounted by the formerly slave-owning 
class. While it may no longer owned human beings as a commodity, it still 
retained the land that gave them economic power.

Closely related to the sharecropping system was debt peonage, another form 
of labor exploitation that was pervasive in Spanish-speaking America, 
including the Chiapas of B, Traven's novels, and that also had ancient 
roots. Basically, this was a system that forced poor people to work off 
debts that were often the result of desperate attempts to keep a roof over 
one's head. When the landlord was the same person who was looking for de 
facto slave labor, there was of course an incentive to drive up the cost of 
housing or to outright cheat an illiterate ex-slave through extortionary 
debt contracts.

Nobody knows the full extent of debt peonage in the South because it 
typically occurred in the backcountry far from public scrutiny. But A.J. 
Hoyt, an expert on the subject, estimated in 1907 that "investigations will 
prove that 33 1/3 per cent operating from five to one-hundred plows, are 
holding their Negro employees to a condition of peonage, and arresting and 
returning those that leave before alleged indebtedness is paid." (Pete 
Daniel, "The Shadow of Slavery: Peonage in the South 1901-1969)

As it turns out, debt peonage was sanctioned by Federal legislation enacted 
in 1867. If the Federal government was resolute in its opposition to 
slavery, it was obviously less so when it came to debt peonage, which 
amounted to the same thing.

Pete Daniel demonstrates how the economic power of the landlord facilitated 
turning a sharecropper into a debt peon:

"The line that divided the cropper from the peon was a thin but crucial 
one. It depended on the compulsion that forced a man to remain on a 
plantation year after year. Sometimes planters discounted the inflated and 
partly fictitious bills that the croppers owed. For example, one planter 
might claim that a cropper owed him $300 but let a neighboring planter have 
him for $150. The second planter continued to record the indebtedness as 
$300. This practice, nailed as it was to the high interest rates prevailing 
through the cotton and tobacco areas, kept the workers in constant debt. 
Yet harsh as this system was, it did not constitute peonage. Peonage 
occurred only when the planter forbade the cropper to leave the plantation 
because of debt. If, at settlement time, the planter told his cropper that 
he remained in debt and could not move from the plantation, then the system 
became peonage. Peonage rested on debt, but the debtor had to be restrained 
for the legal definition to be fulfilled. Some planters were paternalistic 
in extracting forced labor, while others used threats and violence, and, as 
reflected in their complaints, only the most abused laborers sought relief."

The violence that went along with debt peonage served to terrorize the 
entire black community. From Richton, Mississippi, William Moffett wrote 
his sister how white people punished one debt peon attempting to flee a 
plantation. They "took a colored man out last night and tied him to a tree 
and blindfolded him and they beat him until the blood run down on the 
ground and they shot they guns till the people thought war had began and 
the people went today and looked at where the blood soked [sic] in the 
ground, and I am afriad [sic] my time next I cant sleep at night when I go 
to bed so do Some thing at once and get me away from this place."

While the KKK was formed primarily to terrorize blacks from political 
participation, an important part of the Klan's activity was labor control, 
especially of debt peons. As early as 1866, masked bands "punished Negroes 
whose landlords had complained of them." According to Congressional 
testimony of one planter, when blacks "got together to emigrate
men went to them and told them that if they undertook it they would be 
killed," in order to prevent "the country from being deprived of their 
labor." In the words of a Southern lawyer, the Klan was "intended 
principally for the Negroes who failed to work" and pursued blacks who 
labor contracts by running away." (Jonathan Wiener, "Class 
Stucture and Economic Development in the American South, 1865-1955, The 
American Historical Review, Oct., 1979)

As many contemporary commentators point out, including Christian Parenti 
who I took to task here last Thursday, the USA has a prison-industrial 
system, which amounts to a form of slavery. Although the common impression 
is that slavery was abolished with the Emancipation Proclamation, there was 
an exception made in the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution:

"Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for 
crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within 
the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."

Out of that loophole for "punishment for crime", the Southern planters 
created a superhighway. In the introduction to H. Bruce Franklin's "Prison 
Writing in 20th Century America", we learn:

The former slave states, led by Mississippi in late 1865, immediately 
devised legislation defining virtually every former slave as a criminal. 
Known as the Black Codes, these laws specified that many vaguely defined 
acts--such as "mischief" and "insulting gestures" --were crimes, but only 
if committed by a "free negro." Intermarriage was a crime to be punished by 
"confinement in the State penitentiary for life." Mississippi's Vagrancy 
Act defined "all free negroes and mulattoes over the age of eighteen" as 
criminals unless they could furnish written proof of a job at the beginning 
of every year. In other states, "having no visible means of support" was a 
crime being committed by almost all the freed slaves. So was "loitering" 
(staying in the same place) and "vagrancy" (wandering). "Disturbing the 
peace," "creating a public nuisance," "lewd and lascivious conduct," "using 
profane language," "drunkenness"-- all provided highly subjective and 
convenient definitions of crime.

Convicts were leased out to railroad companies, coalmines, canal companies, 
plantation owners, brickyards, and sawmills in Tennessee, Alabama, 
Mississippi, Georgia, and the Carolinas. You can observe the same patterns 
in the B. Traven jungle novels set in early 20th century Chiapas. Time 
after time a drunken Indian is sent to jail, and onwards to a work crew in 
the mahogany forests or on mule trains to pay off his debt to society. 
Since "extra-economic" coercion generally arises as a function of a labor 
shortage, we can safely assume that the convict leasing system was one of 
the first reactions to the relative freedom and self-sufficiency that went 
along with sharecropping.

If sharecropping, debt peonage, convict leasing and KKK terror do not add 
up to "extra-economic" coercion, than I do not know what does. All of these 
counter-revolutionary methods of labor control were instituted *during* 
reconstruction and half-hearted measures from the Federal government did 
nothing to stop their steady progress.

While it is beyond the scope of this article to explain why the North began 
to pull back from Reconstruction, even on the basis of defending black 
political rights such voting, we can agree with mainstream radical and left 
historians who attribute this to a growing class affinity between the 
Northern bourgeoisie and its counterparts in the South. Economic 
development, including the construction of railroads, was on the agenda. 
This involved deeper economic penetration of the South by such Robber 
Barons as Henry Flagler, a founding partner of Standard Oil with John D. 
Rockefeller. Flagler was able to buy millions of prime Florida real estate 
at fire sale prices while freedmen were denied loans to buy land for their 
own subsistence and modest commercial farming.

When rising labor militancy in the North and the example of the Paris 
Commune sent a chill down the spines of the Northern ruling class and its 
ideologists, Radical Republicanism gave way to liberalism, which was much 
more conscious of the class interests of industrialists and bankers in the 
North and their merchant and planter allies in the South. Forming a common 
front against the North American rabble would eventually lead to newer 
radical movements like the Populists, Progressives and eventually a 
socialist movement.

In my next posting, I will review the Marxist literature on slavery, Civil 
War and Reconstruction. This will shift gears away from the academy and 
focus on the contributions of Marx, Engels, Lenin, George Novack, Max 
Shachtman, Peter Camejo and others possibly.

Louis Proyect, Marxism mailing list:

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