Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 31, 2018

Thoughts on John Clegg’s “Capitalism and Slavery”

Filed under: Kevin Coogan,slavery,transition debate — louisproyect @ 8:41 pm

John Clegg

Like Charles Post’s article in the latest Catalyst (behind a paywall), John Clegg’s “Capitalism and Slavery” that appeared in the Fall 2015  Critical Historical Studies criticizes the New Historians of Capitalism aka NHC (Edward Baptist, Walter Johnson, Sven Beckert, et al) from the standpoint of Political Marxism. However, unlike Post, Clegg maintains that slavery was capitalist, thus distancing himself from the more rigid schemas of Post and others in this camp. For Post, anything except free wage labor is “pre-capitalist”, a category that arguably begins with hunting and gathering societies and continues until the 15th century when purely contingent—or even “random” as Post put it–events led to the introduction of lease farming in England, which was the seed that led to the industrial revolution, Amazon.com and all the rest. As such, it might be considered in the same light as the asteroid that hit the Gulf of Mexico 66 millions of years ago. If the asteroid had missed Earth, we might be seeing Tyrannosaurus rex rather than Jeff Bezos running Amazon.

Both Post and Clegg fault the NHC for not being interested in defining capitalism, which is the hallmark of the Political Marxists no matter that Marx spent little time trying to define it himself. He was much more dedicated to explaining how the system took root and how it functions. And when he does refer to the origins of the system, he has quite a different outlook than Post’s: “The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.” If anybody can find a reference from Post, Brenner, Chibber or any other Political Marxist to this sentence or the chapter of Capital in which it appears, I will donate $100 to their favorite leftist cause.

The purpose of Clegg’s article is to expand on his initial definition of it as a system based on “widespread and systematic market dependence” that includes the plantations of the old South. This view puts him in league with Sidney Mintz, James Blaut and even the NHC. Whether it is consistent with the Political Marxism he has absorbed in the NYU Sociology Department is another question entirely. For the more orthodox Brennerites, when human beings are forced to “freely” sell their labor power in the marketplace in order to survive, this satisfies one of the key requirements for capitalism. However, for Clegg the ability of slave-owners, and more specifically the need, to compete with each other for the price of slaves or the goods they produce for the marketplace qualifies them as capitalist property relations:

It is true that markets didn’t allocate slave labor within the plantation, but neither do they allocate wage labor within factories. Insofar as it is capable of being either hired or purchased slave labor is like any other capitalist commodity. The presence of a specialized class of slave traders in the antebellum South ensured that slave markets were exceptionally liquid. Evidence of their allocative efficiency can be found in the estimated net transfer, from 1820 to 1860, of more than half a million slaves from the less productive plantations of the Old South to the more productive plantations in the New South via the domestic slave trade alone.

In a footnote tied to this excerpt, Clegg states: “It is his failure to recognize the liquidity of slave labor markets that leads Charles Post to argue that slaves could not be expelled from the labor process, giving planters no incentive to introduce labor-saving technical change.”

Clegg is not satisfied with the implicit definition of capitalism in the NHC literature, which revolves around profit-seeking and commodification. It is not so much that their hazy definition is incorrect. It is more that they evasively refuse to cast it in concrete. In some sense this is certainly true. I have the three main texts of the NHC but you can search in vain for references to Karl Marx or Marxism in the index.

He recommends to his readers and implicitly to the NHC authors who come across his article that they look into Robert Brenner, whose “conception of capitalism as generalized market dependence may provide the theoretical framing that is largely missing in these works.” He goes on to explain that plantation owners had to compete with each other on the world market and thus find ways to cut costs, either through labor-saving machinery or through the violent enforcement of labor discipline that is recounted in Edward Baptist’s “The Half Has Never Been Told”.

I will pass over Clegg’s critique of some of the arguments made by the NHC since they do not touch upon the question of whether slavery is capitalism or not—the focus of this article—and proceed to the final section titled “The Problem of Origins” that addresses where, when and how capitalism began. (I should add that since I have not read the three main texts of the NHC’ers, I’d be making a fool of myself if I did.)

For Marx, its origin was simply put as “The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population”. So now what does Clegg think?

He starts off by revisiting the Eric Williams classic that actually never argued that slavery was capitalist. His thesis (literally speaking since the book was adapted from his PhD dissertation) was that slavery was necessary for the take-off of British capitalism but in itself was an earlier mode of production. However, Clegg argues against this, even citing Sven Beckert himself who made the case that British textile mills survived even after the Civil War cut off supplies from the South. He also questions whether the North was dependent on the plantation system, citing data that cotton represented only 6 percent of GDP from 1800 to 1860.

In my view this is the kind of tunnel vision that makes Political Marxism so inadequate. Rather than focusing on plantation cotton and British textile mills, it makes much more sense to analyze the origins of capitalism as the outcome of a multiplicity of factors including the impact of the Ottoman Empire as I pointed out in my review of Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu’s “How the West Came to Rule: the Geopolitical Origins of Capitalism”. Ottoman hegemony in the Mediterranean had consequences that ultimately made the “agrarian capitalism” hailed by Brenner and Wood possible, although it was never acknowledged in their scholarship. Put succinctly, the English benefited from Pax Ottomana while the Italian city-states were shut out. This meant that the nascent textile industry had easy access to wool, cotton, silk and mohair from the East. Furthermore, England’s isolation from the intra-feudal warfare of continental Europe allowed it to invest far less capital in the military. So pronounced was the “peacetime” dividend that by the 1550s Spain had seven times as men in arms than England. And none of this would have been possible without the open door the Ottomans provided.

In the final analysis, understanding how capitalism came to pass requires a much broader scope than that is found in both the Political Marxist literature as well as that of the NHC. At least the NHC historians don’t put themselves forward as experts on its origins, only as men and women intelligent enough to understand that slaves were workers producing commodities even if their labor was coerced just as was the case for the hundreds of years preceding the American civil war, from the tin mines of Bolivia to the sugar plantations of Jamaica.

Near to its conclusion, Clegg makes an observation that is most welcome:

In a capitalist order of fully specified property rights, it is wage labor rather than slave labor that is the anomaly. Far from being a precapitalist holdover, enforceable labor contracts would be the dream of many an employer. Today, indenture and debt peonage are legally restricted in most countries, not because employers found free labor to be in their enlightened self-interest but because workers refused to accept a condition approximating slavery. Commenting on a French slave code, Marx once wrote that “this subject one must study in detail to see what the bourgeois makes of himself and of the worker when he can model the world ac- cording to his own image without any interference.” (emphasis added)

He is totally right. It is wage labor that is the anomaly. In a future post, I will try to show this is particularly true of commercial farming that has been most resistant to the idea of a free market when it comes to boss and bossed relations. Just look at how chocolate is produced and you’ll understand what I am driving at.

Frankly, I sometimes wonder if Clegg pays homage to Robert Brenner despite putting forward such distinctly anti-Brennerite ideas just for professional exigency. Is it possible that kowtowing to Political Marxism is a necessity in the NYU Sociology Department because the two big shots who might be sitting on Clegg’s dissertation committee or influencing it are fanatical Brennerites like former Department chair Jeff Goodwin and Vivek Chibber who was so devoted to this academic cult that he had the balls to heckle me at a Historical Materialism conference when I challenged it during a Q&A.



  1. Good article and interesting read but honestly it could do without the Q&A Chibber reference. It makes you look salty after all that time.

    Comment by Erec — April 1, 2018 @ 1:49 pm

  2. But I am salty.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 1, 2018 @ 1:58 pm

  3. I downloaded a PDF version of all three volumes (2300 pages) of Capital in English, converted it to an MS Word .docx file, and searched exhaustively for the mysterious sentence about the “rosy dawn” etc. and various bits and pieces of it and came up empty-handed. Unfortunately the PDF I downloaded was published on http://political-economy.com/capital-karl-marx/ by one Mark Biernat, who provides his own very brief introduction but AFAIK does not identify the actual edition and translator or translators.

    I am reasonably sure the sentence isn’t in this version, but since we don’t know which version it actually is, that can’t be considered conclusive.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — April 1, 2018 @ 10:41 pm

  4. Sorry for the confusion. I meant to say that if Post, Brenner, Chibber or any other Political Marxist refer to it, I’ll make a donation.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 1, 2018 @ 10:48 pm

  5. The quote is from Chapter 31 of Volume One of Capital. In the Penguin edition, it’s on page 915. (This is the translation by Ben Fowkes.)

    However in that translation, it ends, “the dawn of the era of capitalist production.” But in the translation used on marxists.org it reads

    The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.


    This is the Progress Publishers edition that uses the Aveling/Moore translation from 1887. I suppose one would have to look at the original German but it’s not a made-up quote. I would not put it past Marx to throw in a pun on the opening of the Odyssey (“rosy-fingered dawn”) as a way of showing off his classical chops while mocking the bourgeoisie and that Fowkes flattened it out. Again, I suppose one would have to go to the German original or simply say that both translations are valid as a one-to-one match in translations is impossible. Fox example, who would use “signalized” today instead of “singled”?

    Comment by HH — April 2, 2018 @ 3:31 am

  6. The Biernat version is an abridgment–no idea which one. Oh the Intertubes! It’s a jungle out there.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — April 2, 2018 @ 11:46 am

  7. I think that it is a fool’s errand to look for the origins of capitalism in a singular event or activity, such as the introduction of lease farming in England. I suspect that one can find such events sprinkled throughout the histories of many countries. For example, Lefebvre identified a kernel of capitalist activity in France in the commercial enterprises of monasteries in medieval times.

    So, the question may not be the origins of capitalism, but rather, why did it take so long for an empire, like those of the Dutch and the British, to recognize that their imperial interests and the spread of capitalism were harmonious. But even here, it could be possible that empires recognized it centuries earlier, but lacked the transportation technology to spread across the globe as the Dutch and British did.

    Comment by Richard Estes — April 2, 2018 @ 5:02 pm

  8. Out of curiosity, I looked at Marx’s original German for the passage:

    “Die Entdeckung der Gold- und Silberländer in Amerika, die Ausrottung, Versklavung und Vergrabung der eingebornen Bevölkerung in die Bergwerke, die beginnende Eroberung und Ausplünderung von Ostindien, die Verwandlung von Afrika in ein Geheg zur Handelsjagd auf Schwarzhäute, bezeichnen die Morgenröte der kapitalistischen Produktionsära.”

    The Fowkes translation in the Penguin edition is more correct in its use of Morgenrote just as “dawn.” Aveling and Moore add “rosy” perhaps in their own reference to Homer’s famous line (“rosenfingrige Morgenrote” or “red-fingered dawn”) or to underscore that Marx was being sarcastic. Or they just liked the sound of it.

    In any case, “rosy” is their invention.

    Comment by HH — April 2, 2018 @ 6:19 pm

  9. As I understand it, the narrative of events in England that included the enclosure of formerly common lands and the creation therefrom of a mass of landless poor who could be converted into an industrial working class is not under serious dispute. The development of modern industrial capitalism did center on Europe and it did happen in England first or at least in its clearest form.

    Marx acknowledged that and so IMHO should we, even if we recognize that we are not looking at a monolithic succession of unequivocal stages centering exclusively on one country, which is obviously not the case.

    The expropriation of the agricultural producer, of the peasant, from the soil, is the basis of the whole process . . .In England alone, which we take as our example, has it the classic form” (last paragraph of Chapter XXVI on “The Secret of Primitive Accumulation”).

    There can be no Eurocentrism or immorality (or fool’s errand) in acknowledging the basic facts of the historical narrative any more than there is in stating that a fire that has engulfed a building began in a particular room on a particular floor of the building.

    Where Brenner, Post, Chibber, et al have gone with this, from what I can tell, is an entirely different matter–especially when viewed in the light of Post’s attempt to classify U.S. slavery as “pre-capitalist.”

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — April 2, 2018 @ 8:16 pm

  10. In Marx’s view, chattel slavery is non-capitalist because the slave is not regarded as a worker but a thing, rather like a piece of machinery or a plot of land. Hence the slave does not produce surplus value in the same way that a spinning mill does not produce surplus value. Only “variable capital” produces surplus value. I hardly think this is an apologetic view of slavery; rather just the opposite. But you can have non-forms of capitalist economy interacting with capitalist economy in which the worldwide capitalist exchange system and its gunboats subsumes the non-capitalist form in a larger circuit of production. That’s what you had with the American South if you accept Marx’s own definition of surplus value only coming from “variable capital” in the form of work and wages in the unique form of the capitalist or bourgeois mode of production.

    To me there are two basic responses. One: Marx was just wrong and slaves produced surplus value and were part of “variable capital” just like the workers who were paid wages and negotiated for their labor. I personally think Marx was right and that the distinction he makes underlines the true horror of slavery and its full de-humanization that can’t compare to whatever happened to English textile workers in the 19th century. In fact some of the more slick apologists for American slavery tried to argue that because workers were so maltreated in England that chattel black slavery was proof that the South was more humane. Weirdly enough, they saw their own economy as different from as well as superior to the classic English model.

    I personally think Marx’s distinction is worth making, and an important one at that as I don’t believe “wage slavery” was worse than “chattel slavery.” Chattel slavery was far worse on many levels. For one thing, English factory owners didn’t break up families and sell them. But they did help support an economy in America that did just that. I think one reason the anti-slavery movement resonated in England was in part an awareness that English factories made the Southern slave economy economically viable. For all the boasting of British opposition to the slave trade, the trade would have collapsed but for markets in both the North and especially in England.

    To me the issue in Marxism is the wedding cake notion of layers of social evolution where the “slave mode of production” is relegated to ancient Greece and Rome. This is clearly wrong. The real distinction should be the idea that in the ancient world, slavery was the dominant mode of production but not the only mode as the ancient world also had farmers and artisans. Also as LP pointed out, ancient slavery often had a “tributary” form although there was a much harsher form of plantation slavery developed especially after the rise of the equestrian order in Rome during the Empire. Galley slavery was plantation slavery on a boat.

    In the case of America, the dominant form was capitalist production; the slave economy was a subsumed sub-economy totally dependent on the integration of its economy primarily into the British-dominated world economy. So 19th century slavery was not “pre-capitalist” as it arose during the capitalist era and was ideologically justified by such arch Whigs as Locke, But that didn’t mean it was not a slave-based economy, at least according to Marx’s notion. But that form of economy could never arise or be maintained in a world system that was not itself capitalist. Hence the notion that the South was predominantly (although not totally) based on the slave mode of production and that this was part of the larger capitalist mode of production seems completely non-contradictory to me.

    Comment by HH — April 2, 2018 @ 8:55 pm

  11. But that didn’t mean it was not a slave-based economy, at least according to Marx’s notion.


    To repeat what I wrote above: “The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.” What does Marx mean by dawn? Surely, he meant the beginning just as the title of the chapter speaks of genesis. Strictly speaking, Political Marxism views all coerced labor as outside the realm of capitalism. In fact, to show you how grotesque they can be, they did not view any nation in Europe as capitalist in the early 19th century except England. My concern is less with what Marx wrote about slavery, which can be contained in about a thousand words, but what Post et al write.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 2, 2018 @ 9:25 pm

  12. The first nation to do all that Marx writes about in that quote was Spain, of course, not England.

    There is also a debate that sort of parallels this one that took place between Perry Anderson and EP Thompson in the late 1970s. Thompson saw England as the center of advanced capitalism in the 19th century but Anderson was less sure. He argued that because England was one of the first (if not the first: I can’t remember how he classified Holland) to be capitalist, it was also the one most laden with feudal inheritance and trappings of the old landed gentry order. (I’m not doing his argument justice here but just writing casually.)

    In my read years ago, I thought that this came in part because Thompson was older and still remembered England’s days of glory. Anderson (who was also Irish) came of age politically right after the Suez Crisis and saw the fall of England’s colonial holdings and its relegation to a junior partner of America. Hence to Anderson, the decay of England was primary while for Thompson the vast holdings of the British Empire was still a lived reality. So both Thompson and Hobsbawm still had a living memory of England as a world power.

    Hence in the 19th century, Thompson saw England as triumphant and run by the capitalist class, all the fuss about the monarchy and such aside. For Anderson, England still had a backward aristocracy steering the ship; it was also being lapsed by the Americans and the Germans who enjoyed the benefits of “combined and uneven development.” England fell so seriously behind the US and Germans by the late 19th century and had to retreat behind the wall of the imperial trade system.

    Enter Arno Mayer with a book that said the classic Hobsbawm view of capitalist Europe overlooked the tremendous power and holdover of the old landed aristocratic and military circles in Western Europe (not to mention Russia). His view was that the power of the landed aristocracy had been under-appreciated by Whig/Marxist interpretations of progress that viewed the old aristocracy and military as a bunch of simpleton dinosaurs in funny hats. For Mayer, Europe only really began to change after World War I destroyed the old order, and not before.

    Anderson and Mayer, however, never denied that Europe as a whole was capitalist. They argued that the way capitalism emerged in Europe was much less clear-cut than in the more traditional Marxist views, especially with regard to England. This in part explained things like the failure of 1848 and the “Persistence of the Old Regime” as Mayer entitled his 1981 book.

    Anyway, I’m trying to remember stuff I read decades ago and led to a truly bitter clash between Thompson and Anderson. I am sure I’m not doing either side justice but it seemed worthwhile to mention the debate in this larger context. As for Mayer, I didn’t get the sense that he was a Marxist but rather that he was more a historian interested in the social and cultural history of Europe in the 19th century.

    Comment by HH — April 2, 2018 @ 11:13 pm

  13. The first nation to do all that Marx writes about in that quote was Spain, of course, not England.

    Colonial Africa bore many resemblances to Spanish colonies in the New World some three hundred years earlier. In French colonies, you even found legally imposed ‘corvees’ that drafted native labor to construct railroad lines. These very same corvees were the mechanism used in feudal France to drain swamps, chop trees and build roads on the lord’s demesne. To even add to the sense of temporal dislocation, we learn from Adam Hochschild’s “King Leopold’s Ghost” that the Belgian monarch visited the colonial archives in Spain to study how places like Mexico and Peru were administered in the 17th and 18th centuries. So was the Congo Free State [sic] feudal? For that matter, were Mexico and Peru feudal because the men running the mines and plantations called themselves Lord Fernando, etc.? It is around such questions that Marxists in the Brenner mold and world systems-oriented Marxists conduct their search for the historical truth.

    These issues have taken on a newly heightened sense of urgency around revelations that wide-scale use of child slavery or contract labor exists in the cocoa plantations of the Ivory Coast, where 43 percent of the world’s raw commodity for chocolate is produced. A July 29, 2001 NY Times magazine article on the suffering of a 15 year old contract laborer named Youssouf reported the following:

    “When visiting other plantations, Youssouf always talked with the laborers who worked there. He learned about good farmers and about bad ones. He learned that some workers were paid a little more than he, and some a little less. Some ate three times a day, some twice. He saw workers who seemed far younger than he, and others who looked as old as his father. He met a few boys who had worked more than a year but had not been paid at all. Some of them said that the trees on their farms were sick. The others didn’t know why they hadn’t been paid. All of them, though, kept working. They told Youssouf that they had no choice — if they stopped and left, there’d be no chance of ever being paid. They said that they’d be ashamed to return home after so long with nothing. They said that people in their villages would look at them as failures.

    “The trees on Lagi’s plantation stayed healthy. The weeds were kept low. The cocoa pods grew, and when the pods were ripe, the boys chopped them down and Lagi’s wives split them open and laid the seeds out to dry. Then the workers put them in sacks, and Lagi sold the sacks to people from the city. And then, like that, Youssouf had worked a year. His contract was over. Lagi asked if he’d like to stay for another year, and Youssouf said no. And so Lagi paid him the money. He paid him 75,000 Central African francs — 7,500 a month for 10 months, with two months’ work used to pay for his purchase price.

    “For a year of hard labor, six days a week, sunrise to sunset, Youssouf was paid a total of $102. It was more money than he had ever seen. He was proud of himself. He knew for certain that he was now an adult. Lagi’s oldest son pedaled him out of the jungle, and Youssouf’s time on the cocoa plantation came to an end.”


    Comment by louisproyect — April 2, 2018 @ 11:29 pm

  14. Amazing that Leopold went to the Spanish archives.

    Marx was right in Capital to call this period the “dawn” of capitalism because dawn is a transitional period between night and day. Pure feudalism died out in Continental Europe much much earlier. It was replaced by the rise of the absolutist state or the attempt to create one, which in part was the result of needs generated by military necessity. This military-industrial-scientific complex further encouraged the growth of science. The absolutist state and the resistance it generated (the Whigs, for example, created the Bank of England as a way of generating capital to militarily combat Louis XIV) was the transitional period between the long-gone feudal system and emerging capitalism. But in many ways today we are seeing the renewed turn to the idea of the absolutist state in Russia, China, and in the soggy brain of Donald Trump.

    Comment by HH — April 3, 2018 @ 6:32 am

  15. When the American fascist Ezra Pound went to visit his idol Mussolini (very briefly, as one suspects M. had no real idea who EP was) he reported that he said to M. that he was going to Rapallo “to put his ideas in order.” M. asked, “Why do you wish to put your ideas in order?” EP was gobsmacked–what genius!!

    In all likelihood, M. had been allocated a brief time by some understrapper to meet with this useful idiot and was only making small talk.

    At least Mussolini was a competent newspaper editor (by comparison anyway with Warren Harding) who spoke four or five languages and could more or less fly an airplane.

    Compare and contrast Trump, who apparently excels only at whoring–and even then only because he’s willing to pay extra for it.

    Trump’s admiration for the absolutist state is all talk., like the border wall and his advocacy of universal health care. He doesn’t have the chops to form a clear idea about anything and in the end is far more manipulated than he is manipulating. The real danger of “totalitarianism” (old liberal buzzword) comes if ever when Trump is out of the way and some as-yet-unrecognized bastard or junta takes his place.

    This will probably happen, if it ever does, only when the Democrats achieve a limp-wristed small majority in the House of Representatives and thus position themselves to be blamed for the coming recession–the more so if they actually succeed in removing Trump from office.

    The removal of Nixon bought us Reagan. This is the real reason why lesser-evilism is at best a tactical diversion to buy time–the only way to fight Big Evil (if we must moralize) is to take action outside of and against both the political parties and the so-called law–letting yourself be herded like a bunch of chumps into a little corral where you can be easily decimated is the Democrat’s idea of being “mellow” and “progressive” and is delusional and incredibly dangerous.

    Of course this doesn’t mean breaking plate glass and sucker-punching UVa English majors waving stogies.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — April 3, 2018 @ 11:29 am

  16. Sorry–off topic–no more of this.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — April 3, 2018 @ 11:34 am

  17. HH, the chapter about the “rosy dawn” is within the section titled “Primitive Accumulation” in V. 1 of Capital. It is in tandem with chapters on the enclosure acts that are associated with the origins of capitalism in the British countryside. In other words, Marx specifically defined the beginnings of the capitalist system with the dissolution of the means of production for the yeoman farmer inside England and the introduction of slavery into the New World colonies.The error of the Brennerites is to pretend that Marx did not link the two processes.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 3, 2018 @ 12:23 pm

  18. Got it.

    Comment by HH — April 3, 2018 @ 2:56 pm

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