Slavery and Genovese's Delusions

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Genovese impressively overthrew many existing assumptions within US slave historiography, only to replace them with dissimulations and distortions that were yet another set of theological postulates in the name of Marxism.

Manuel Yang

Issue #69, June 2004

brown gold feet by Melissa UsherIn 1960, E.P. Thompson penned one of the opening shots of the British New Left, "Outside the Whale," which critically surveyed the political terrain of the 1950s in which disenchantment became the norm of erstwhile Communist militants and sympathizers who recoiled in the face of their Stalinist Yahweh that failed. That recoil, honorably experienced and articulated, Thompson said, more often than not progressed into default, that is to say, "capitulation to the status quo." Default meant taking refuge in the theological shelter of original sin where denunciation of former political commitments and Marxist faith equaled repentance: "The ritual demolition of Marxism perform necessary theological functions. They would remain a necessity to Natopolis, as a Satanic Idea, even if the Soviet Union were to vanish from the earth."

In our age of neoliberal imperialism, fifteen years after the Soviet Union vanished from the earth, Thompson's point remains as valid as ever, with the latest military entrenchment of the Bush administration exercising crude imperial boosterism for the post-Cold-War Natopolis that is under increasingly insecure US global hegemony. A vicious feature of this neoliberal world regime has been the rise of proletarian slavery throughout the world. George Caffentzis has incisively commented on this phenomenon:

This does not imply a return to the "chattel" slavery of the pre-Civil-War period, where the slave was the property of private individuals and could be sold at will. But there are many forms of "unfree labor" — e.g., debt bondage, serfdom, prison labor, and corvee. These near-slave forms of labor were used in the US South for almost a century after slavery was abolished and the First Reconstruction was scuttled. The ending of the Second Reconstruction — practically in the late 1970s, and formally in 1995, with the Supreme Court decision to void Affirmative Action — has paved the way for a second round of near-slavery regimes which prey on the traditional source of slaves: the poor woman, the prisoner, and the stranger. For if slavery is, as Orlando Patterson suggests in his broader definition, "the permanent, violent domination of natally alienated and generally dishonoured persons," then these people fit the definition of the dominated. The existence of an "information-driven," "cyber-spaced," capitalism will not save us from a revival of slavery֡s long as capitalism continues to exist there will be an inevitable tendency to reintroduce slave-like forms of labor. If waged and unwaged workers do not have the force to resist this tendency, then many of our number will be doomed to slave status at whatever the level of productive forces the capitalists command.

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

Genovese and Slaveocracy

Image of feet by Melissa UsherOne 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 system.

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?

Image of green gold feet by Melissa UsherGenovese 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.)"

Image of blue hands by Melissa UsherAs 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."

Seigneurial Culture

To miss this essential point and to gloss it under the Southern planters' seigneurial culture of paternalism and disdain of market values is to throw the baby of capitalist social relations with the bathwater of economic determinism and base-superstructure model. Part of the problem is that, as an erstwhile Stalinist who never abandoned the central tenets of his dogma, Genovese's culturally refined, Gramscian critique of orthodox Marxist history remained entirely blind to the historical fact that the state socialism he critically defended most of his life was nothing more than a species of state capitalism, a bureaucratic industrial capitalism under the centralized authority of the monopolist vanguard party, capitalism without the bourgeoisie, as it were. Hence when he writes, "The fall of the Confederacy drowned the hopes of southern conservatives for the construction of a viable noncapitalist social order, much as the disintegration of the Soviet Union — all pretenses and wishful thinking aside — has drowned the hopes of socialists," he is doubly wrong. What fell in both cases were two variants of capitalism, one that took a seigneurial form and the other a socialist one.

Image of purple gold feet by Melissa UsherSeigneurial or socialist forms of capitalism may sound like contradiction in terms in the minds of those whose political views, such as Genovese's, were shaped by the false East/West dichotomy of the Cold War. But this contradiction is the extent of the ideological effect that otherwise useful and elegant analytical categories in modern bourgeios thought has had on us, twisting them more often than not into dogmatism. The state collectivization of peasant land and Lenin's "five-year plan" — or its Stalinist continuities or Maoist "Great Leap Forward" — were primary accumulation and capitalist proletarianization committed in a single, compressed stroke of a generation. Of what significance was it to the Russian or Chinese peasants and proletariat that these enclosures, expropriations, and impositions of alienated labor were done in the name of socialism, as emblematized in the oxymoronic phrase "socialist accumulation" found in the Soviet economist Preobrazhensky's ABC of Communism? Lenin turned to Germany of his day — a rising authoritarian bourgeois industrial capitalist state — and declared it as a model for Soviet economic development, saying not in so many words that socialism equaled capitalism minus the trappings of bourgeois rule (including constitutionally, democratically enforced rights and freedoms), plus state monopoly ownership and vacuous pro-proletarian propaganda (as hollow as U.S. propagandistic self-representation as a democracy). The Gulag then was a proof not so much of Communist totalitarianism, as Cold War ideologues and their contemporary progenies would have us believe, but represented the incarceration of the Russian proletariat and imposition of slave labor for the accumulation of state, collectivist capital, historically analogous to the Middle Passage.

If the languages of Southern seigneurial paternalism or orthodox Communism waylay us, these social phenomena will be hijacked automatically into preexisting ideological and political categories as obfuscating and secondarily irrelevant as the worst forms of medieval European scholasticism. The Japanese radical thinker Yoshimoto Taka'aki remarked in his study of primitive Christianity and ancient Judaism:

Since then Christianity took three forms in relation to the theme indicated by the Book of Matthew. The first was the Luther-type who shows the place of its conscience by deeming the self as a daunted existence swaying among relative emotions, the second was — maintaining the Pharisees, scholars of Law, as they are — the Thomas Aquinas-type who, without caring, forms a status quo, whether in the primary place of the Church or in the fusion with power, and the third was the Franciscan type who refuses to be the Pharisees of the heart and actively becomes aliens from the status quo. In order to give meaning to human existence, the form we could assume in relation to the status quo can only consist of choosing from one of these three types.

Image of hands by Melissa UsherThe choice Genovese made, from his Brooklyn youth as a Communist militant in the late 1940s to a Catholic convert in the late 1990s, was to follow the path of the "Aquinas-type," from one theology of status quo to another, identifying himself — albeit with certain critical qualifications — with the authoritarian political party/church as well as the authoritarian rule of the Southern slaveocrats. While decrying the latter's participation in the inhumane institution of slavery, Genovese has been consistently unstinting in his admiration for their nobility for reasons already noted above, and, according to him, one of the leading slaveholding ideologues who examplified the paternalist, anti-market values that were critical of industrial wage-labor and whose nobility of character was forged in the smithy of Christian morality, was George Fitzhugh.

George Fitzhugh, Defender of Slavery

What strikes the contemporary reader over and over again in reading the nineteenth-century pro-slavery arguments of George Fitzhugh and his fellow pro-slavery intelligentsia is their comparative approach: contrasting the highly exploitative conditions of "free labor" — or "wage slavery" — to the paternalistic and beneficent conditions of chattel slavery. In fact, closely examining their criticism of capitalist system of "free competition," what you find is a conveniently modified appropriation of nineteenth-century socialist doctrines and analysis. I say "conveniently modified" because, at critical junctures, these men take flight in the most egregious fanciful assumptions, patent falsehoods regarding the realities of chattel slave life, and perversely contorted reconceptualizations of slavery as either an ideal system most closely approximating socialist aspirations or the lesser-of-the-two-evils vis-à-vis wage labor. And the way to escape immediate critical scrutiny, they seem to teach us, is to do these things subtly and almost as an afterthought.

A reader can innocently pore over many of their passages without the least objection but in general agreement, as when Fitzhugh writes:

The employer cheapens their [the common day laborers'] wages, and the retail dealer takes advantage of their ignorance, their inability to visit other markets, and their want of credit, to charge them enormous profits. They bear the whole weight of society on their shoulders; they are the producers and artificers of all the necessaries, the comforts, the luxuries, the pomp and splendor of the world; they create it all, and enjoy none of it; they are the muzzled ox that treadeth out the straw; they are at constant war with those above them, asking higher wages but getting lower; for they are also at war with each other, underbidding to get employment.

Image of hands by Melissa UsherAt the same time, Fitzhugh is undoubtedly a masterful practitioner of art of disingenuous reasoning and dissembling. For example when he says, "To it (slavery) Greece and Rome, Egypt and Judea, and all the other distinguished States of antiquity, were indebted for their great prosperity and high civilization..." one may nod in approval, finding it reminiscent of Walter Benjamin's famous line, "There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism." This illusion of approval, however, is quickly dispelled as Fitzhugh goes on to paint a ludicrously unreal and sentimental image of the Southern slaveocrats as creators of the greatest art, manners, and high purpose that civilization represents. Fitzhugh does not consider slavery as a form of "barbarism" in the least.

This is not all. Fitzhugh's attack on "free competition" is based on the historically ill-informed Hobbesian dictum that "[t]o this propensity of the strong to oppress and destroy the weak, government owes its existence." Next to the Lockean contractual theory of governance in explaining the origin of the state, this view fails to take account of how government — or the state proper — was precisely the historical mechanism of "the strong to oppress and destroy the weak" in privatizing the land and criminalizing the thus expropriated peasants and indigenous population. Be that as it may, there is something strangely suspicious to hear someone show the most expansive respect for the wisdom and intellect of Socialists and Communists — as Fitzhugh does — and, in the next breath, dismiss the substance of their arguments, while retaining them their facile form, by appealing to human nature: "Wise, however, as these Socialists and Communists of France are, they cannot create a man, a tree, or a new system of society; these are God's works, which man may train, trim, and modify, but, but cannot create."

There is no small Genovese-esque quality to Fitzhugh's assertion that "The attempt to establish a government on purely theoretical speculation, regardless of circumstances and experience, has always failed; never more signally than the Socialists." Fitzhugh is a goldmine for these kinds of quips and sentiments that delight and pull the heartstrings of an ex-authoritarian-Marxist, now-authoritarian Catholic neoconservative, who hyperbolically projected in 1994 his delusions about the Soviet Union as "The Question" that the "Left" must confront before it reclaimed its integrity. To the discredit of the US intellectual culture, he was taken seriously without a sniffle of ridicule. Genovese wrote on Fitzhugh:

Fitzhugh insisted that all labor, not merely black, had to be enslaved and that the world must become all slave or all free. He defined "slavery" broadly to include all systems of servile labor. These views had become commonplace in the South by the 1850s. His originality lay in the insight that slavery could only survive and prevail if the capitalist world market were destroyed. He understood that organic social relations and attendant values could not survive in a world dominated by capitalist competition and bourgeois individualism.

Image of hands by Melissa UsherThe Genovesean thesis, based on this original insight of Fitzhugh, that the slave-based Southern plantation system somehow constituted a non-capitalist system in opposition to the capitalist world market, is no less anachronistic and absurd in conception than Fitzhugh's contention that "[d]omestic slavery in the Southern States had produced the same results in elevating the character of the master that it did in Greece and Rome." That Fitzhugh, along with a number of other slaveholders, were individuals of admirable character in their personal dealings, compounding the tragedy of their status, is neither here nor there. We may respect the character of individual fascists or Stalinists, but to muddy our historical and political evaluations on the basis on such personal sentiments is to collapse the personal and the political, precisely what Genovese in his neoconservative incarnation denounces:

In one sense, it's open to common sense that everything we do has political significance. The problem is when you raise that to a doctrine that politicizes all aspects of life, and that's what the slogan ["The personal is political"] does. I'm not really kidding when I say that it's fascist and Stalinist.

In his essay on "A Question of Morals," Genovese attacked Staughton Lynd's "absolute morality" for "thinking slavery and servitude evil and immoral for every time and place," deeming such "morality" an incapacity to grasp the "tragedy" inherent in how "the development of slavery and other forms of servitude propelled human society from a primitive existence, which in Hobbes's phrase was 'nasty, brutish, and short,' toward civilization." We know, from Caffentzis's penetrating essay "On the Scottish Origin of 'Civilization,'" that the notion "civilization" was historically developed to justify the eighteenth-century enclosure and expropriation of the traditional, commonist customs, values, and culture of the Scottish Highlanders, to condemn the "primitive existence" of the Highlanders as "savagery," just as the European ruling class did toward the Native Americans and Africans.

Genovese's Apologism

For Genovese then to caricature Lynd's view as one which holds that "the human race should have been condemned to permanent savagery or, alternatively, that conditions necessary to bring the human race out of savagery must be judged immoral" only shows Genovese's own true color as a subtle, dissembling apologist for primary accumulation and expropriation to civilize the savages and force them into slavery, for capitalisms (state socialism and Southern seigneurialism) that failed. Consider a Marxist historian who, while being so sensitively attuned to the historical nuances of Southern planter civilization, could, at the height of his conviction in 1966, write the following passage on the slaves' rebellious act of direct appropriation on the page of Studies on the Left:

One of the most prominent and irritating habits of recalcitrant slaves was stealing. Plundering the hog pen and the smokehouse was an especially happy pastime. Radical and liberal historians have taken particular delight in insisting that slaves might "steal" from each other but only "took" from their masters. After all, their labor being unpaid, they only took that which was rightfully theirs. I can understand this viewpoint from liberal because I can understand almost anything from liberals; I cannot understand it from Marxists. Since Marxists regard all surplus value as deriving from unpaid labor time, we ought, by the same logic, to be delighted every time a worker commits robbery at his plant֔he slaves understood the link between conventional morality and the civilized behavior of the whites; by rejecting that morality they registered a protest, but they simultaneously underscored their own isolation from that standard of civilization.

Image of red feet by Melissa UsherWe readily understand that Genovese's morality is that of — as has been aptly said — a "socialist cop." Again, the personal and political implode with miserable effect, with the reinforcement of double standard of white slaveholders or bourgeois factory owners' "standard of civilization" in which the generalized robbery of human labor and freedom is accepted as a given while proletarian micro-struggle to expropriate a bit of the expropriators' incomparably greater robbery (protected, moreover, by the monopoly of state terror and organs of ideological dissemination that determines what is and what is not moral in their favor) is implied as uncivilized, far from the nobility of the civilized planters; Genovese's entire work is shot through with this sort of logic, which Lenin would have denounced candidly as that of a philistine.

Throughout the writings he did during his Marxist phase, Genovese frequently indulged in the rhetorical habit of authoritatively declaiming that Marxists think this or shouldn't think that, do this or shouldn't do that. Who ever elected Genovese to speak on behalf of Marxists? As an individual Marxist who must be keenly aware of the diverse traditions and strands that invoke that appellation, he should have at least have had the common sense, if not the humility, that at most he could only speak for himself.

In this and other respects, it may not be entirely accurate to view Genovese as one of the disenchanted in Thompson's sense, for the seeds of his default were apparent from the outset of his professional career as a full-fledged Marxist. Disenchantment could denote opposition to orthodoxy, and that would include an honorable genealogy of the radical libertarian left, autonomist Marxist, anarchist, and otherwise, whom Genovese has ignorantly and categorically dismissed as "personal liberationists." His is the default of false prophets in the Christian sense, of those who have prophesied and cast out devils in the name of Jesus or prophesied and done many wonderful works in the name of Marxism but to whom God and history severely say in the end: "I never knew you." Concerning Fitzhugh's criticism of bourgeois society, Genovese once wrote, "We may doubt that a ruling class could stand a year with an ideology based on nothing more than hypocrisy and deception." No wonder he doubted; his lifework on slavery was fueled by just such hypocrisy and deception, which he, like Fitzhugh, never bothered examining.

Manuel Yang is a graduate student in History at University of Toledo.

Previous Bad Subjects essays by the same author:
Marxism as the Art of Class War (2004)

Copyright © 2004 by Manuel Yang. Images of hands and feet Copyright © 2004 Melissa Usher. All rights reserved.

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