Re: [OPE] Further evidence RE: Marx, slavery and the South

From: Jurriaan Bendien <>
Date: Fri Feb 18 2011 - 12:05:18 EST

 I am not exactly sure what your precise argument contra Marx is. In 1861,
Marx formulated the US slavery problematic in the 1860s as follows:

"The cultivation of the southern export articles, cotton, tobacco, sugar ,
etc., carried on by slaves, is only remunerative as long as it is conducted
with large gangs of slaves, on a mass scale and on wide expanses of a
naturally fertile soil, which requires only simple labour. Intensive
cultivation, which depends less on fertility of the soil than on investment
of capital, intelligence and energy of labour, is contrary to the nature of
slavery. Hence the rapid transformation of states like Maryland and
Virginia, which formerly employed slaves on the production of export
articles, into states which raise slaves to export them into the deep South.
Even in South Carolina, where the slaves form four-sevenths of the
population, the cultivation of cotton has been almost completely stationary
for years due to the exhaustion of the soil. Indeed, by force of
circumstances South Carolina has already been transformed in part into a
slave-raising state, since it already sells slaves to the sum of four
million dollars yearly to the states of the extreme South and South-west. As
soon as this point is reached, the acquisition of new Territories becomes
necessary, so that one section of the slaveholders with their slaves may
occupy new fertile lands and that a new market for slave-raising, therefore
for the sale of slaves, may be created for the remaining section. It is, for
example, indubitable that without the acquisition of Louisiana, Missouri and
Arkansas by the United States, slavery in Virginia and Maryland would have
been wiped out long ago. In the Secessionist Congress at Montgomery, Senator
Toombs, one of the spokesmen of the South, strikingly formulated the
economic law that commands the constant expansion of the territory of
slavery. "In fifteen years," said he, "without a great increase in slave
territory, either the slaves must be permitted to flee from the whites, or
the whites must flee from the slaves." "
This comment ought to be seen against the backdrop of changes in legislation
within the US, the British empire, and other empires in the preceding half
century - in some areas of the transatlantic economy, the slave trade was
still permitted, but using (new) slave labor in production was not; in
others, the slave trade was prohibited, but existing slave labor was

Marx's "economic" explanation of slavery actually closely reflected the real
discussions and mentality of that time. Indeed in 1858, Abraham Lincoln
himself suggested precisely that slavery could be abolished by making it
"uneconomic". If new slave imports were halted or restricted, and if
settlement by slaves on new lands was prohibited, Lincoln projected that
gradually slavery would, as it were, wither away (the whole process would,
he believed, take about 100 years).

Similar arguments were made by other leading politicians and economists,
including Horace Greeley, Horace Bushnell, George Tucker and John Elliot
Cairnes (for more details, see e.g. Stanley L. Engerman, "Slavery after the
abolition of the slave trade: the United States and the British West
Indies", p. 223-243 in: Marcel van der Linden, Humanitarian Intervention and
changing labor relations. Leiden: Brill, 2011).

Supposing though that Marx's exact interpretation in a journalistic article
cannot really be literally maintained in the light of the total historical
evidence. Would we then throw out the whole materialist interpretation of
history for that reason alone? This seems rather odd. It would be like
saying that if an academic at the State University of New York at Buffalo
made one scientific mistake, we should never believe anything he says


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Received on Fri Feb 18 12:06:37 2011

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