[Marxism] A critique of Genovese

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Jul 6 14:35:11 MDT 2004

Slavery and Genovese's Delusions
Manuel Yang
Bad Subjects, Issue # 69, June 2004


Nowhere has this notion of "slavery" been more woefully mystified than 
in the domain of US historical scholarship.

Genovese and Slaveocracy

One of the prime sources of this mystification is Eugene D. Genovese, 
once a leading Marxist historian of U.S. plantation slavery and now a 
neoconservative, Catholic curmudgeon in the Culture Wars, a man who 
appears to have traversed the path of apostasy as readily as the 
previous generation of ex-Communists. Genovese impressively overthrew 
many existing assumptions within U.S. slave historiography, only to 
replace them with dissimulations and distortions that were yet another 
set of theological postulates in the name of Marxism. In The Political 
Economy of Slavery (1965), he wrote that the Southern slave "planters 
were not mere capitalists; they were precapitalist, quasi-aristocratic 
landowners who had to adjust their economy and ways of thinking to a 
capitalist world market" and this quasi-aristocratic, landowning 
tradition "developed neither a strange form of capitalism nor an 
undefinable agrarianism but a special civilization built on the 
relationship of master to slave," a civilization that, "in its spirit 
and fundamental direction, represented the antithesis of capitalism, 
however many compromises it had to make."

Hence the nineteenth-century struggle between the North and South in the 
US Civil War (which Genovese insistently dubs "the War for Southern 
Independence") was a clash of two civilizations, the Northern bourgeois 
one of market-based industrial capitalism and the Southern one of 
slaveholding landowners. Genovese has gone so far as to say that the 
latter civilization, at its best, "constituted a rejection of the crass, 
vulgar, inhumane elements of capitalist society," refusing social 
relations based on the cash nexus, and, "given their sense of honor, 
were prepared to defend [their ideals] at all cost." Indeed, "The 
planters, in truth, grew into the closest thing to feudal lords 
imaginable in a nineteenth-century bourgeois republic."

This Genovesean thesis is not far removed from the fetishism of 
categories that Marx decried in his attack on bourgeois political 
economy, that secular theology of the capitalist class (note that the 
title of his book is not the Critique of the Political Economy of 
Slavery). One of the central features of theology is that it mistakes 
appearance for the essence of things. Hence seeing the appearance of 
perfected humanity in God, capitalism, or socialism, as well as the 
appearance of embryonic capitalist relations in all forms of society 
throughout history, are manifest examples of theological thought. When 
Genovese calls the US Southern slave planters "the closest thing to 
feudal lords imaginable in a nineteenth-century bourgeois republic," he 
mistakes the appearance of aristocratic ideology and mores for the 
essence of the historical, social relations that defined the plantation 

However diverse and conflicting the cultural practices among the various 
sectors of the ruling class or multifarious the forms of slavery 
(whether waged or unwaged, free or chattel, urban or industrial) 
existing in a bourgeois republic, the bourgeois republic remains 
unflinchingly bourgeois. The Japanese ruling class put the emperor more 
centrally in their state ideology and nationalist culture in 1868-1945 
than in the previous three hundred years of militarist feudalism under 
Tokugawa hegemony. Did that make modern Japan more feudal or, at least, 
semi-feudal, as some the Koza School Marxists claimed? Had England been 
a species of feudal, monarchical capitalism because it never abolished 
the peerage and its polite culture of deference remained intact?

Genovese has sufficient historical sense to qualify the judgment that 
the planters were "the closest things to feudal lords" by noting: "In 
arguing that their system was neither bourgeois nor seigneurial but a 
unique socioeconomic formation, we are delineating the special qualities 
of a particular ruling class within a larger international capitalist 
mode of production. But those special qualities define the kind of 
marginal difference which periodically has sent social classes and 
peoples off to slaughter one another." It is such "marginal difference" 
among the ruling classes of the world capitalist system that have 
engulfed the globe in world wars and imperialist bloodbath, such as the 
one taking place today in Iraq. Furthermore, because there is no such 
thing as a pure capitalism or seigneurialism, to call the Southern 
plantation system "a unique socioeconomic formation" is a moot point, 
for that is the case with all historical, regionally specific forms of 
seigneurial or capitalist systems.

And how does Genovese define capitalism? Declaring that he follows the 
definition of Karl Marx and Maurice Dobb, Genovese says it is "the mode 
of production characterized by wage labor and the separation of the 
labor force from the means of production — that is, as the mode in which 
labor power itself has become a commodity."

In 1881 Marx warned Vera Zasulich that the analysis of expropriation of 
agricultural producers — which laid the basis of capitalism — he made in 
Capital was "expressly confined to the countries of Western Europe," not 
to be applied willy-nilly to other regions of the world, and Dobb's own 
discussion in Studies in the Development of Capitalism focused 
specifically on West European capitalist development, particularly 
England. What Genovese has done in his definition is what Marx said his 
Russian critic Nicolai K. Mikhailovsi did to his work: "He must by all 
means transform my historical sketch of the development of capitalism in 
Western Europe into a historical-philosophical theory of universal 
development predetermined by fate for all nations, whatever their 
historic circumstances in which they find themselves may be. . .But I 
beg his pardon. (That [view] does me at the same time too much honor and 
too much insult.)"

As crucially important as the wage-form is in the formation of 
historical capitalism, this is not what makes capitalism what it is; 
rather, it is the historical process of what Marx mentions here and 
calls elsewhere primary or primitive accumulation, namely the 
expropriation and enclosure of the commons and forcible 
proletarianization of the expropriated, that is, their entire lives 
condemned to the systematic, generalized imposition of work. When the 
African commoners were hunted in their native lands, divorced from their 
respective customary means of subsistence and production, sold into 
slavery, and transported through the Middle Passage into the "New 
World," they suffered primary accumulation; when those who survived that 
harrowing journey were forced to work as slaves on the plantation, whose 
organizational form and labor-process in many ways prefigured the labor 
discipline and exploitation of the industrial factory, they were made 
into proletarians forced to create surplus value for their plantation 
masters. This is why Marx wrote in Part VIII of Vol. 1 of Capital: "The 
discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement, 
and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of that continent, 
the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion 
of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of blackskins, are 
all things which characterize the dawn of capitalist production" and "In 
fact the veiled slavery of the wage-labourers in Europe needed the 
unqualified slavery of the New World as its pedestal."

full: http://eserver.org/bs/69/yang.html


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