[Marxism] Genovese

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Nov 25 12:50:05 MST 2005

From: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/origins/post1.htm

While Genovese never generated the kind of controversy that Engerman and 
Fogel did, there were some Marxist scholars who were just as adamantly 
opposed to his message. One of them was Herbert Gutman, the eminent labor 
historian who had also written a trenchant criticism of "Time on the Cross".

In "The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925", which some regard 
as a rebuttal in its entirety to Genovese's scholarship, Gutman takes up 
the claim that slaves lived in an "elaborate web of paternalistic 
relations" as Genovese put it. Although Gutman acknowledges that slave 
masters viewed themselves in this light, he questions whether this was the 
way that their subjects perceived it. For example, in response to 
Genovese's claim that a high rate of slave reproduction proved "the 
paternalistic quality of the masters", he states that a high reproduction 
rate does not depend on "good treatment".

Some years later Gutman gave an interview to Mike Merrill, the codirector 
of the Institute for Labor Education and Research in New York City. His 
comments on Genovese are worth quoting in their entirety:

This is the context, I think, in which we can best understand Eugene 
Genovese's work. He posed some important questions. My difficulty is with 
how he went about answering them. A central question raised in Roll, 
Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made is the effect slaves had on their 
owners. A splendid question. To answer it one needs to know who the slaves 
were early in time and how the master-slave relationship was formed and 

Think of it this way. Suppose one was writing a book on ironworkers and 
steelworkers in Pittsburgh called Roll, Monongahela, Roll: The World the 
Steelworkers Made. How would that book begin? It is not a book about the 
steel industry. It is not a book about class relations in the steel 
industry. It is subtitled The World the Steelworkers Made. Would it begin 
with a 150-page essay quoting from and explicating Andrew Carnegie's 
Autobiography and his letters? If one writes about the world the 
steelworkers made, the book should begin with the men before they were 
steelworkers and study how they became steelworkers. It would begin with 
them before they experienced Andrew Carnegie and then watch a world being 
made as they become steelworkers and interact with Andrew and his 
factories. Obviously this is precisely the innovative and bold structure of 
The Making of the English Working Class. We don't begin with industrial 
capitalism already imposed and study strands of upper-class ideology. We 
begin with the world of the artisan. We begin with the world of the 
handicraft weaver. We begin with the world before modern capitalism. Then 
the interaction is intense, painful, sometimes violent, and even creative.

The way in which you examine a world people make is to show that world in 
formation. A major conceptual problem in Roll, Jordan, Roll is that it 
ignores class formation. A static class relationship is probed for several 
hundred pages, sometimes imaginatively and brilliantly. We are presented 
with a fully developed slave system. Class relations and ideologies are 
described only in the late slave period, the decades immediately prior to 

The problem with such an approach is that when you freeze a moment in time 
to examine a structural relationship, you cannot neglect the process by 
which that relationship was formed, how it developed. If you either ignore 
or misunderstand that process, then you can give almost any meaning you 
want to the relationship and to its constituent parts. What struck me on 
rereading Roll, Jordan, Roll is that it is so very functionalist. It is as 
if we are being told, "This is the way that society worked, why there was 
so little rebellion, and slaves and their owners made it through the day 
and night."

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