The Dialectics of Slavery, On Fitzhugh and Calhoun

Here is my response to a Facebook conversation with Paul Fox on the dialectics of slavery, i.e. the apparent difference between slave-labor and wage-labor. There were two eminent Southern thinkers in US history, who were attempting everything to protect the Southern planter elites from the Northern intervention, which could wipe out the institution of slavery in an instant. The South ended up seceding from the Union, and Lincoln waged a war on “keeping the union together”, ultimately, bringing slavery to an end. Was slavery’s end inevitable, because industrial capitalism simply generated more resources and power than slave-based agrarianism? I personally don’t think that slavery’s demise was a historical coincidence, and that is not because the humanitarian abolitionists gained much attention in the national debate.1

I am quoting a writing by social theorist George Fitzhugh, who ardently defended slavery as morally superior using Marxist dialectic to apply critical analysis to wage labor as a real form of slavery, while putting on rose-colored glasses on slavery “as the very best form of socialism.” 2

“The Negro slaves of the South are the happiest, and, in some sense, the freest people in the world. The children and the aged and infirm work not at all, and yet have all the comforts and necessaries of life provided for them. They enjoy liberty, because they are oppressed neither by care nor labor. The women do little hard work, and are protected from the despotism of their husband by their masters. The Negro men and stout boys work, on the average, in good weather, not more than nine hours a day. The balance of their time is spent in perfect abandon. The free laborer must work or starve. He is more a slave than the Negro because he works longer and harder for less allowance than the slave, and has no holiday, because the cares of his life with him begin when its labors end. He has no liberty, and not a single right.”


It is peculiar how one can twist the argument on his own behalf. Fitzhugh certainly uses Marxist rhetoric, but Marxian analysis would not be more lenient on the institution of slavery than wage-labor. The expropriation of slave-labor happens on a comprehensive scale. The slave works primarily for his master with the bare subsistence (food and shelter) provided by himself through his master. The pretense of freedom is inexistent. Most of what the slave produces is surplus labor, which goes to the benefit of the master. In wage-labor the producer-expropriator relationship is disguised by the worker’s freedom in the double sense. The worker is free to sell his labor to any employer of his liking. And secondly, he is free of the means of production, and therefore has no other choice but submit himself to the rules of the company he is working for. The production of surplus value exists in this economic relationship as well, but is hidden behind the wage. The worker thinks he is free, because he thinks the money he receives after performing his work is the full amount he can expect for his labor, but the existence of surplus labor is hidden from his view, and in the hand of the capitalist to appropriate.

John C. Calhoun was another important defender of slavery. Ri-chard Hofstadter’s article4 is drawing parallels between Cal-houn’s method of understanding the economic system with Marxism, using similar methods to those employed by Fitzhugh. I am quoting passages of the article, and make comments on them.

On some very fundamental things he had it wrong, and had it right. He was certainly right in applying Marxian dialectics in Northern industrial society, but was wrong in making a comparison with Southern slavery. He says, “In the Southern states labor and capital are “equally represented and perfectly harmonized.” To which Hofstadter responds. “At bottom he was not interested in any minority that was not a propertied minority. The concurrent majority itself was a device without relevance to the protection of dissent, but designed specifically to protect a vested interest of considerable power.”

Calhoun protected his own interest, i.e. that of the propertied planter elites, the less than 10% of the white population that owned slaves. Marxism and socialism for the planters, oppression and internalization of agrarian bourgeois thought among the slaves (and poor whites). The mode of production in slave-labor is much more obviously oppressive than wage labor, and slave-labor had the indignity of specifically pointing to the inhumane economic relationship between producer and expropriator.

In certain modes of thought he is deeply Marxist. “It was one of Calhoun’s merits that in spite of his saturation in the lore of constitutional argument he was not satisfied with a purely formal or constitutional interpretation of the sectional controversy, but went beyond it to translate the balance of sections into a balance of classes.” Out of legalism, and into the core structure of societal organization. What a delight!

“The essence of Calhoun’s mistake as a practical statesman was that he tried to achieve a static solution for a dynamic situation.” One can argue that Marx was capable of dissecting the dynamic of capital. It has an inevitable tendency to absorb all other modes of production. Today, every society is capitalist except those few tribal regions in New Guinea or Brazil (please correct me if I am wrong), but it bears testimony to what capital can achieve. Whereas Calhoun was a practical man in power, trying to protect agrarianism from capitalism and therefore forced to adopt radical arguments to immediately avert the collapse of the planter system, Marx was principally a philosopher and theoretician, free to critically assess the capitalist mode of production in its entirety with very few prejudices and restraints. And, ultimately, the challenge of capital is not over. We are extracting more resources than ever, and the capitalist imperative is growth, the valorization of capital investments. We Americans are thinking that China’s rise to industrial power is the end of story, but China is actually extending its manufacturing into Vietnam and Cambodia- capitalism looks for valorization, and this is the ultimate crisis of capitalism, which we have not witnessed yet, and don’t know when to witness it.
1 One might think of William Lloyd Garrison or Frederick Doug-las.
2 Fitzhugh, George. “Free Trade, Ch. 1.” Sociology for the South; or, The failure of free society . New York: B. Franklin, 1965. 27-28. Print.
3 Fitzhugh, George. “Pro Slavery Argument from Cannibals All!.” Teach US History. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 July 2011. .
4 Hofstadter, Richard. “John C. Calhoun: The Marx of the Master Class.” Montgomery College. D.C. Ellison. Web. .

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