Capitalism, slavery and the Brenner thesis part 4

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Sep 29 08:28:07 MDT 2003


This is the next-to-last installment in my series of articles on 
slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction. It is based on a reading of:

1. Karl Marx, "The Civil War in the United States" (selected articles 
from 1861 to 1866)

2. V.I. Lenin: "The Development of Capitalism in Russia" (1899) and "New 
Data on the Laws Governing the Development of Capitalism in Agriculture" 
(1915)

3. George Novack and Harry Frankel (Braverman), articles in "America's 
Revolutionary Heritage"

4. Peter Camejo, "Racism, Revolution, Reaction", 1861-1877

5. Max Shachtman, "Communism and the Negro" (1933)

Although, as I shall point out in my final post, Marx was beginning to 
doubt the revolutionary capacity of the bourgeoisie as early as 1848, 
his various writings on the American Civil War exude confidence that the 
Northern industrialist would drag the South into a modern world based on 
market relations and democracy. In my estimation, it is this written 
record that partially makes the task of revising our understanding of 
the "second American revolution" so daunting.

While most contemporary civil war historiography regards Lincoln's 
attitude toward emancipation as driven by exigency rather than 
principle, there is very little evidence of this in articles for the 
Vienna Presse or the Tribune. Anxious to show that the war is not simply 
over tariffs, as the London press alleged, Marx virtually depicts the 
war as national liberation struggle of the "great republic" in the North 
against "adventurous idlers" in the South: "[T]he Union had in fact 
become the slave of the three hundred thousand slave-holders over the 
South." Despite his recognition that the Republicans were far more 
interested in keeping slavery out of the Northwest than in uprooting it 
from the South, he still regarded the struggle as one "between two 
social systems, between the system of slavery and the system of free labor."

What is missing, however, from Marx's public articles is any kind of 
deep theoretical engagement with slavery as a mode of production, or 
with the question of how the struggle against slavery and for socialism 
was related. Since his articles were written for the bourgeois media, 
this is understandable. His letters to Engels in this period have a more 
measured quality. He refers to 'bourgeois' democracy and admits that 
some Northern businessmen are partisans of the Confederacy.

Whatever gaps exist in Marx's writings, they are certainly filled in by 
George Novack and Harry Frankel who try to theorize slavery and the 
struggle against it within the context of the larger struggle for 
socialism in the USA. The Pathfinder collection also includes excellent 
articles on the American Revolution of 1776, the class character of the 
Andrew Jackson administration, populism, the suffrage movement, etc. 
Side by side with Howard Zinn's "People's History of the United States" 
and similar books by Herbert Aptheker and WEB Dubois, they help to 
provide an alternative to the standard self-glorifying texts most of us 
read in high school or college.

As might be expected, Novack and Frankel make the case for a 
"bourgeois-democratic revolution" led by an alliance of temporizing 
politicians like Lincoln who were more interested in preserving the 
Union than in eradicating slavery and Radicals like Thaddeus Stevens who 
expressed the class interests of a rising industrial bourgeoisie. At 
times the identification with a revolutionary bourgeoisie leads to some 
rather unsettling formulations, such as George Novack's explanation of 
the "interlinked stages of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in the 
United States".

"The bourgeois-national revolutionary movement in North America had five 
main tasks to fulfill. These were: (1) to free the American people from 
foreign domination; (2) to consolidate the separate colonies or states 
into one nation; (3) to set up a democratic republic; (4) to place state 
power in the hands of the bourgeoisie; and (5) most important of all, to 
rid American society of its precapitalist encumbrances (Indian 
tribalism, feudalism, slavery) in order to permit the full and free 
expansion of capitalist forces of production and exchange. These five 
tasks were all bound together, the solution of one preparing the 
conditions for the solution of the rest."

Although Novack's essay "The Civil War--It's Place in History" was 
written in 1961, long before Wounded Knee, it is still astonishing to 
see such a facile grouping of slavery, feudalism and "Indian tribalism". 
Hadn't Novack ever read about the debt of Benjamin Franklin and others 
to the institutions of the Iroquois confederacy, which were adopted by 
the victorious rebels of 1776 as a model of grass-roots democracy? This 
kind of mechanical stagism owes more to Herbert Spencer than it does to 
Karl Marx, I'm afraid. I have been told that Novack was trying to woo a 
group of ex-CP intellectuals around John Gates into the SWP during this 
period. Perhaps Novack was trying to invoke Popular Front conventional 
wisdom about the progressive American bourgeoisie.

Camejo's book is probably the best all-round introduction to these 
questions. He wrote it during his 1976 SWP campaign for President. I 
remember how important the book was to him. He wanted to show SWP 
leaders that he was not just an agitational speaker and that he was 
capable of doing serious scholarship. That he did. Although numbering 
less than 300 pages, the book does penetrate to the heart of the matter 
with impressive erudition.

While not departing from the basic ideological framework established by 
earlier SWP leaders like Novack and Frankel, Camejo's book does have the 
additional virtue of readability. Despite the fact that he was trying to 
distance himself from his agitator past, the book retains the 
electricity of a campaign speech:

"While their living standards were deteriorating the workers could see 
about them the orgy of profiteering and graft that was enriching the 
employing classes as never before in U.S. history. Millionaires had been 
a comparative rarity in pre-Civil War America, now they were sprouting 
up like mushrooms after a rainy spell. Manufacturers of war materials, 
shoddy uniforms, shoes that fell apart after a few marches, piled up 
profits; railroad manipulators were grabbing off huge tracts of land 
which were supposed to have gone to actual settlers under the Homestead 
Act. The orgy of lavish and conspicuous spending by profiteers made more 
bitter the sufferings of the workers."

This quote also conveys Camejo's general refusal to put the industrial 
bourgeoisie on a pedestal. This is no heroic class leading other 
subordinate classes to victory over its reactionary slave-owning rivals. 
It is a mercenary, rapacious and freedom-hating elite that only takes a 
kind of revolutionary action when forced by circumstances beyond its 
control.

When Camejo addresses the failure of the Northern industrialists to 
carry out land confiscations against the defeated slavocracy, his 
explanation seems at first blush to make perfect sense in Marxist terms:

"Unlike its French forerunner a century earlier, the American industrial 
bourgeoisie during the second American revolution was already a fully 
developed class with political hegemony in a substantial sector of the 
country--and with its opponent class concentrated in a smaller and less 
developed region. It was this regional character of the second American 
revolution which permitted the industrial capitalists to mobilize a 
sufficiently powerful social force to achieve victory while limiting the 
concessions they offered to the lower strata of the population. The 
relationship of class forces never compelled the bourgeoisie to add land 
reform for the ex-slaves to its one truly revolutionary concession--the 
abolition of slavery."

In other words, the French bourgeoisie was too weak to make a revolution 
on its own. It had to cut a deal with the peasants in order to establish 
its own rule. In exchange for land confiscated from the gentry, they got 
foot soldiers for the revolution. If there is any correlation between 
weak bourgeoisies and mobilizing peasants, then there would have been 
1789s all through Latin America. In reality, as I shall point out in my 
final post, the French bourgeoisie itself never really pressed for land 
reform. What is consistent in all of these misnamed "bourgeois 
revolutions" is the tendency for social transformation to come from the 
bottom despite the intentions of the powerful. When slaves voted with 
their feet to join the Union, it led Lincoln to issue an Emancipation 
Proclamation. A similar process took place in France 75 years earlier.

Max Shachtman's "Communism and the Negro" was written in 1933. It is now 
available from Verso under the title "Race and Revolution" with an 
excellent introduction by Christopher Phelps. The last time I ran into 
Phelps he was working on a book on Trotskyism and the black struggle.

Shachtman was trying to persuade the Trotskyist movement that 
black-white unity around class demands was superior to either Trotsky's 
support for self-determination developed during his Prinkipo exile or 
the CPUSA's own "black belt" slogan, which arose during the "3rd 
period". The CP had theorized that the Deep South constituted a black 
nation in terms of the definition laid down by Stalin, especially around 
the criterion of occupying a common territory.

Although these questions are obviously very important for Marxism, I 
concentrated on what Shachtman had to say about slavery, the Civil War 
and Reconstruction. Although his chief interest was in supporting his 
views on black liberation in 1933, I found his analysis of postbellum 
class relations more acute than Novack, Frankel or Camejo despite 
sharing their characterization of the Civil War as a 
bourgeois-democratic revolution. Unlike them, he addresses the exact 
class nature of the forms of labor of the postbellum period and finds 
that they fall short of what we understand by "pure capitalism". If the 
Civil War was an assault on "precapitalist" modes of production, then it 
must have been a rather unsuccessful one given the various kinds of 
"extra-economic coercion" that remained in place from Reconstruction 
onwards.

For Shachtman, the words of African-American John R. Lynch, who was the 
speaker of the Mississippi house during Reconstruction, are critical:

"it was soon made plain that if that plan should be accepted by the 
country no material change would follow for the reason, chiefly, that 
the abolition of slavery would have been abolition only in name. While 
physical slavery would have been abolished, yet a sort of FEUDAL OR 
PEONAGE SYSTEM would have been established in its place, the effect of 
which would have been practically the same as the system which had been 
abolished. The former slaves would have been held in a state of 
servitude through the medium of labor-contracts which they would have 
been obliged to sign--or to have signed for them--from which they, and 
their children, and perhaps their children's children, could never have 
been released. This would have left the old order of things practically 
unchanged. The large landowners would still be the masters of the 
situation, the power being still possessed by them to perpetuate their 
own potential influence and to maintain their own political supremacy."

Shachtman chose these words carefully in order to support his thesis 
that despite the victory over the slavocracy, the South was not 
reorganized on a "purely capitalistic" basis. Although the plantation 
system was no longer operated on the basis of slavery, it continued to 
compel the black sharecropper or lease tenant to produce on a non-market 
basis. This kind of class relationship was first noted by Karl Marx in 
Vol. 3 of Capital and commented on by V.I. Lenin in the 1915 article 
"New Data on the Laws Governing the Development of Capitalism in 
Agriculture". Lenin's article contained a detailed analysis of American 
agriculture in order to provide a benchmark for Russian agrarian 
developments. Here is Lenin's reference to Marx that was cited by 
Shachtman to support his analysis that the postbellum South was not 
"purely capitalistic" in terms of Robert Brenner's schema:

"America provides the most graphic confirmation of the truth emphasized 
by Marx in Capital, Volume III, that capitalism in agriculture does not 
depend on the form of land ownership or land tenure. Capital finds the 
most diverse types of medieval and patriarchal landed property—feudal, 
'peasant allotments' (i.e., the holdings of bonded peasants); clan, 
communal, state, and other forms of land ownership. Capital takes hold 
of all these, employing a variety of ways and methods."

http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1915/newdev/01.htm

In other words, just as was the case in Junkers Germany and Meiji 
Restoration Japan, agrarian capitalism in the USA does not necessarily 
entail pure market relations. Sharecropping is a form of 
"extra-economic" coercion that like slavery dates back to the Roman 
Empire. The bourgeoisie does not mind digging back into the remote past 
in order to dust off some form of labor exploitation to adapt to current 
needs. If there is a surplus of labor, it will rely on market relations 
to drive down wages. If, on the other hand, there is a shortage, it will 
find all sorts of ways to chain workers to a plantation or mine through 
legal, political or even military institutions that take priority over 
market relations.

Indeed, Lenin identified the plantation system of the Deep South as 
having many of the same characteristics as agrarian capitalism during 
Czarism, which was a mixture of market and non-market class relations. 
In his 1899 "The Development of Capitalism in Russia", Lenin did not 
posit market relations as a kind of sine qua non for capitalism. Instead 
he was eager to point out that extra-economic forms of coercion were 
integral to labor exploitation in the Russian countryside. (The corvée 
referred to below was a system that originated under feudalism that 
obligated a serf to perform labor services on his master's lands, like 
mending fences or sowing crops):

"Thus, capitalist economy could not emerge at once, and corvée economy 
could not disappear at once. The only possible system of economy was, 
accordingly, a transitional one, a system combining the features of both 
the corvée and the capitalist systems. And indeed, the post-Reform 
system of farming practised by the landlords bears precisely these 
features. With all the endless variety of forms characteristic of a 
transitional epoch, the economic organisation of contemporary landlord 
farming amounts to two main systems, in the most varied combinations -- 
the labour-service system and the capitalist system."

http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1899/devel/ch03/02.htm

Lenin adds:

"Lastly, it must be observed that sometimes the labour-service system 
passes into the capitalist system and merges with it to such an extent 
that it becomes almost impossible to distinguish one from the other. For 
example, a peasant rents a plot of land, undertaking in return to 
perform a definite number of days’ work (a practice which, as we know, 
is most widespread; see examples in the next section). How are we to 
draw a line of demarcation between such a 'peasant' and the 
West-European or Ostsee 'farm labourer' who receives a plot of land on 
undertaking to work a definite number of days? Life creates forms that 
unite in themselves with remarkable gradualness systems of economy whose 
basic features constitute opposites. It becomes impossible to say where 
'labour-service' ends and where 'capitalism' begins."

Indeed, it is impossible to say where feudal-like forms of 
extra-economic coercion ends and where market relations begin in both 
semi-feudal Russia or a postbellum United States that was seen in some 
Marxist writings as "purely capitalistic". In my final post, I will try 
to resolve this seeming contradiction and to evaluate the Civil War as a 
"bourgeois-democratic revolution".

-- 

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