Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 6, 2016

Capitalism, slavery and the search for definitions

Filed under: slavery,transition debate — louisproyect @ 8:16 pm

I finally got around to reading John Clegg’s article “Capitalism and Slavery” that appeared in the Fall 2015, Critical Historical Studies. Like practically all such articles dealing with Political Marxism except for those that appear occasionally in the ISO’s International Socialist Review, it is behind a paywall. I had heard that the article defended the idea that the slave-owners of the Deep South were capitalists while at the same time it defended the Brenner thesis that capitalism began in the British countryside. To put it mildly, this is about as unusual a combination of positions as can be imagined given that the Political Marxism catechism sees slavery = precapitalist as sacrosanct.

I first heard Clegg speak at a HM conference last April where he argued that chattel slavery was a form of exploitation consistent with Marx’s value theory. For Clegg, the chief difference between a wageworker and a slave was that the class relationship was based in the first instance on a contract between the buyer and seller of labor power but not in the second. Aside from that, there is really no difference since both types of labor are being exploited in order to produce commodities for sale on the capitalist marketplace for a profit.

The brunt of the article was a critique of three of the most noted historians writing in the Eric Williams tradition–Edward Baptist, Sven Beckert and Walter Johnson—for failing to provide a definition of capitalism in their various books. Although I have not read any of their books from cover to cover, I did find it interesting that when I went to the index I could find hardly any pages devoted to a theorization of capitalism. Clegg writes:

The problem is not that they lack the “correct” definition of capitalism. The problem is that by dodging the problem of definition altogether they fail to provide a coherent account of capitalist slavery. One doesn’t need to believe in such a thing as “pure” capitalism in order to recognize that modern capitalist societies have certain core features in common. Nor does one have to be a structuralist to see that capitalism lends itself to systematic analysis. Yet these authors fail to explain how the various features of the antebellum economy that they identify form part of a coherent capitalist system.

In this essay I argue that Robert Brenner’s conception of capitalism as generalized market dependence may provide the theoretical framing that is largely missing in these works. Brenner points out that while markets have existed in all known societies, only in capitalism are productive agents dependent on the market for their survival. This is because producers in capitalist societies have no direct (nonmarket) access to the means of production, including their own means of subsistence, and must therefore sell to survive. Since prices will be determined by the interaction of many producers in the market, producers in capitalist societies are compelled not only to sell but also to produce at a competitive cost.

So there you have it. A rejection of one core belief of Political Marxism while embracing another. That’s something you don’t see every day.

In his exegesis of the three historians, Clegg places them in the legacy of Fogel and Engerman’s “Time on the Cross”. This was a book that argued for the capitalistic logic of slave plantations where profit governed every calculation, even more so than in northern factories. While Fogel and Engerman made some useful arguments supported by extensive documentation, they went overboard and argued that productivity breakthroughs in the south led to improvements in the lives of slaves to the point of making them materially privileged in comparison to many wage workers.

Against these two stood Eugene Genovese who claimed that the plantation owners had much more in common with feudal lords, a point made essentially by Brenner and Charles Post. It is obviously wrong. In his own way, Genovese shared Fogel and Engerman’s dubious support for the idea of slave owner beneficence. For them, it flowed from their commitment to the idea that a happy worker was a productive worker, while for Genovese it was much more of a function of precapitalist paternalism of the sort that allowed serfs to have more than a hundred days of religious holidays per year.

While nominally in the Fogel and Engerman camp, the three historians considered by Clegg all subscribe to the notion that it was violence that increased productivity on the plantation—not adroit management or time and labor-saving technologies. This is something Clegg regards as exaggerated:

The point is not that violence was an ineffective means of extracting surplus labor from slaves. If the whip hadn’t worked, it wouldn’t have been so widely used. Baptist and Johnson are right to emphasize, against the neoclassical assumptions of Fogel and Engerman, that market competition most likely increased rather than moderated slave owner violence. The point is rather that slave owners subject to a competitive constraint can always be expected to use violence to whatever extent it is profitable. They will use violence to extract the maximum output when cotton yields and pickability are low, and they will continue to use violence to extract the even larger output when yields and pickability rise due to changing soils and seeds. Thus it is implausible that increased violence alone could account for a fourfold increase in productivity from 1805 to 1860. For it would suggest that market-dependent slave owners in 1805 were either too ignorant or too kind to take advantage of a relatively simple way to make a lot of money.

Up till this point, there’s not much for me to disagree with. I would only add that I would tend to hold off final judgement on the three historians until I have had a chance to read their books from beginning to end. My suspicion is that I will take a somewhat different tack than both Clegg and the others. Isn’t it the case that social control is not just a function of violence but the threat of violence? People were obedient in Nazi Germany because the threat of violence was omnipresent. The same thing was likely true in the Deep South.

Clegg has a section in his article titled “The Problem of Origins” that I dare say is problematic. It is there that he calls upon the Brenner thesis to “fix” what was wrong in the three historians, namely their belief that without American slavery there would be no British capitalism. In other words, they were wrong to either explicitly or implicitly base themselves on Eric Williams. While no doubt accepting the possibility that cotton from the south was a key and necessary raw material for the textile industry, Clegg argues that it is impossible to prove that British capitalism or that of the northern states was “dependent’ on it.

I will reserve judgement on this until I have had a chance to evaluate Clegg’s claim that “while cotton represented a large share of US exports, exports were a small share of the antebellum US economy, averaging 6 percent of GDP from 1800–1860.” To my knowledge GDP data does not exist prior to 1870 but maybe Clegg has a better handle on this.

What I am more qualified to render an opinion on is the echt Brennerite claim that “The Spanish, Portuguese, and French often had richer colonies, but none experienced either large scale industrialization or an industrial revolution.” By now you should be familiar with the idea that it was only Britain that had made a transition to capitalism so the plunder of gold and silver, the slave trade, the genocide against the Indians, etc. was “squandered” everywhere except England.

To a large extent, Clegg’s flawed thinking on this is a function of relying simultaneously on both Brenner and Wallerstein, who seem to serve as ideological boundaries for his understanding of the origins of capitalism. Despite their furious debates over the years, both scholars accepted that capitalism began in England as a consequence of contradictions internal to feudalism. Once it was established there, it diffused outwards but for Wallerstein was utterly reliant on colonization for its ability to become hegemonic.

Political Marxism and world systems theory both have a Eurocentric outlook although in Wallerstein’s case it was meliorated by his steadfast engagement with those who existed on its periphery—the “people without history” as Hegel put it.

Missing from Clegg’s analysis is the place of England within an ensemble of class relations existing inter-societally vis-a-vis the Mongols, the Ottomans, the Chinese and the Indians. As a ‘backward” country on their periphery, England was able to leapfrog over them through a series of policies that exploited its geographical position, its military superiority, its access to New World bullion and other factors identified in Anievas and Nisancioglu’s “How the West Came to Rule”. None of this is reflected in the traditional axis of the debate as constituted by Brenner on one hand and the dependency theorists on the other.

However, the biggest problem for me is Clegg’s use of the term capitalism firstly as an adjective to describe a particular country like England and secondly the usefulness of the term in conventional social science terms, which he seems to employ unfortunately.

Referring to another scholar’s problem with the new historians’ avoidance of a definition for capitalism, Clegg writes: “It is true that terminological debates can have a pedantic tone, and it is unlikely they will be resolved anytime soon. However, if the new field is to last, it cannot avoid the question of definition.”

This leads us to the interesting question of whether Marx ever defined the term himself. In fact if you do a search on it on MIA, you will find not a single attempt to do so. Mostly you see him grappling with the problem of defining capital, such as in “Wage Labor and Capital”: “Capital consists of raw materials, instruments of labour, and means of subsistence of all kinds, which are employed in producing new raw materials, new instruments, and new means of subsistence. All these components of capital are created by labour, products of labour, accumulated labour. Accumulated labour that serves as a means to new production is capital.”

Sometimes Marx refers to “the capitalist system” but without taking any particular pains to clarify what that means. Usually it is something like this: “The capitalist system presupposes the complete separation of the labourers from all property in the means by which they can realize their labour”, something just about everybody can agree with.

However, the problem arises when you try to use such terms both as a social science type definition and as a historical term for the simple reason that when capitalism is coming into being (to put it in Hegelian terms), it has only a relative “separation of the labourers from all property” as the presence of a dominantly self-husbanding peasantry in late 18th century France would indicate. Was France capitalist at this point or was it feudal? I suppose the only way to answer that is like Faye Dunaway answering Jack Nicholson in “Chinatown”. “Who was she?” “She was my daughter”. Slap. “She was my sister”. Slap. “All right. She was my daughter. She was my sister”. Aaah!

Was there any way to answer this question of defining capitalism in the early stages other than how Trotsky answered the question of whether the USSR was socialist? I don’t think so. The sooner the Brennerites begin to use the same kind of language with respect to early modern European economic history, the better off we will all be.

To define the Soviet regime as transitional, or intermediate, means to abandon such finished social categories as capitalism (and therewith “state capitalism”) and also socialism. But besides being completely inadequate in itself, such a definition is capable of producing the mistaken idea that from the present Soviet regime only a transition to socialism is possible. In reality a backslide to capitalism is wholly possible. A more complete definition will of necessity be complicated and ponderous.

The Soviet Union is a contradictory society halfway between capitalism and socialism, in which: (a) the productive forces are still far from adequate to give the state property a socialist character; (b) the tendency toward primitive accumulation created by want breaks out through innumerable pores of the planned economy; (c) norms of distribution preserving a bourgeois character lie at the basis of a new differentiation of society; (d) the economic growth, while slowly bettering the situation of the toilers, promotes a swift formation of privileged strata; (e) exploiting the social antagonisms, a bureaucracy has converted itself into an uncontrolled caste alien to socialism; (f) the social revolution, betrayed by the ruling party, still exists in property relations and in the consciousness of the toiling masses; (g) a further development of the accumulating contradictions can as well lead to socialism as back to capitalism; (h) on the road to capitalism the counterrevolution would have to break the resistance of the workers; (i) on the road to socialism the workers would have to overthrow the bureaucracy. In the last analysis, the question will be decided by a struggle of living social forces, both on the national and the world arena.

Doctrinaires will doubtless not be satisfied with this hypothetical definition. They would like categorical formulae: yes – yes, and no – no. Sociological problems would certainly be simpler, if social phenomena had always a finished character. There is nothing more dangerous, however, than to throw out of reality, for the sake of logical completeness, elements which today violate your scheme and tomorrow may wholly overturn it. In our analysis, we have above all avoided doing violence to dynamic social formations which have had no precedent and have no analogies. The scientific task, as well as the political, is not to give a finished definition to an unfinished process, but to follow all its stages, separate its progressive from its reactionary tendencies, expose their mutual relations, foresee possible variants of development, and find in this foresight a basis for action.

The Revolution Betrayed, 1936 (https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1936/revbet/ch09.htm#ch09-3)


  1. Trotsky’s “degenerated workers’ state” theory has been demolished several times over. It’s not a good example of anything. Marcel van der Linden, 2007:

    ” We saw previously how Trotsky characterised the Soviet bureaucracy as a
    parasitic social stratum, which, from the sphere of distribution, had temporarily
    seized political power within the workers’ state. From an orthodox-Marxist
    perspective, there are again several essential problems involved here.

    “Firstly, there is the question of the *temporary nature* of the bureaucratic
    phenomenon. Trotsky’s thought, in this respect, showed a clear logic: the
    Russian working class, with the victory of 1917 still fresh in its memory,
    would sweep aside the élitist outgrowth which tried to rob the fruits of
    its revolutionary efforts. If, by any chance, that did not happen then, after
    some time, the old revolutionary self-confidence would ebb away, and the
    élite would acquire the possibility of transforming itself into a new ruling
    class. One can obviously question whether, within the Soviet working class
    of the 1930s, the ‘lessons of the revolutionary struggles and the conclusions
    of Bolshevik strategy’ were still very much alive, as Trotsky claimed. But,
    if that had been the case, then one could have regarded Trotsky’s thesis as
    consistent with Marxist orthodoxy. After all, in Marx himself we encounter
    similar ideas. Problems, however, arise when Trotsky’s intellectual heirs
    write, even in recent times, that: ‘In the scales of history, the question remains
    as Trotsky posed it in 1939. But the “time frame” was erroneous.’ The force
    of Trotsky’s argument is thereby undone, because the specific (and Marxian)
    considerations which originally brought the author of The Revolution Betrayed
    to his thesis are now tacitly eliminated, and replaced by an abstract generality
    (‘the scales of history’).

    “A second difficulty inheres in the distinction which the theory of the
    degenerated workers’ state makes between the sphere of production and
    the sphere of distribution. This distinction contradicts with Marx, who always
    emphasised that *both* should be considered as part of a cohesive totality…

    “A third problem is posed by the fact that Trotsky only ascribed a distributive
    and parasitic function to the bureaucracy, and thereby denied that it could
    have roots in the productive sphere. From an orthodox standpoint, this idea
    is impossible to sustain. The Soviet bureaucracy, after all, led the enterprises,
    and hence also the production processes.[…]

    “[The]dual character of the leadership function obviously also applied to
    Soviet enterprise management, which, on the one side, tried to organise
    production, and, on the other side, simultaneously embodied the oppression
    of the workers. Clearly, the corollary must be that at least an important part
    of the Soviet bureaucracy was not exclusively parasitic, but also performed
    *productive* labour in the Marxian sense.

    “A final problem concerns not so much a matter of orthodoxy, but of logic.
    It inheres in the separation between the political and economic spheres. This
    separation was logical and theoretically consistent, since the working class
    was viewed as being economically the ruling class, but politically powerless.
    Be that as it may, the peculiar thing is that, precisely in a planned economy,
    political and economic power cannot be so separated. Whoever formulated
    and supervised the implementation of the plan, and thus possessed political
    power, obviously also ruled the economy.

    “If we combine these objections, it appears that the theory of the degenerated
    workers’ state is in part unorthodox, and in part illogical.”

    (Western Marxism and the Soviet Union, pp. 313-15.)

    Comment by jschulman — February 6, 2016 @ 11:08 pm

  2. You don’t seem to understand (I think) the point of my quoting Trotsky. It was to try to get another way of looking at societies in transition. As opposed to either Kautskyite or Brennerite stagism in which a society becomes transformed almost overnight like Athena springing from the forehead of Zeus, it is an emphasis on seeing the USSR or 16th century England dialectically.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 7, 2016 @ 12:10 am

  3. “Kautskyite”? Ever read “The Social Revolution” (1902)? It’s not about society becoming “transformed almost overnight.”

    And you’re using “stagism” strangely. It was an epithet used by Trotskyists against orthodox pro-Moscow Communists for arguing that national liberation struggles should fight for bourgeois democracy first and then for proletarian/social revolution only at some unspecified date later. Surely you remember this from your SWP days.

    Comment by jschulman — February 7, 2016 @ 8:31 pm

  4. You don’t get my point. You should find the time to read Anievas and Nisancoglu. This will make it a lot clearer.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 7, 2016 @ 8:36 pm

  5. Fine. I’ll put it on the list. But the list is already quite long.

    Comment by jschulman — February 7, 2016 @ 9:58 pm

  6. Have you ever read this, btw?


    Comment by louisproyect — February 7, 2016 @ 10:03 pm

  7. Louis, Wallerstein most explicitly does not see capitalism originating in England. He locates the first emergence of a capitalist economy in the Netherlands, with Poland and Sweden being the peripheries whose basic products enable this emergence.

    Comment by Cedric Beidatsch — February 10, 2016 @ 2:36 pm

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