When Liberalism Defended Slavery
February 21, 2018
With Responses From
Feb 21, 2018
9 Min read time
The political ideology of slaveholders depended on liberal humanism.
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Walter Johnson demonstrates how little liberal humanism, with its celebration of individual rights and agency, has to offer those wishing to understand the history of slavery or seeking justice for communities that have survived enslavement. I would extend Johnson’s critique by pointing out that liberal humanism has long been a central component of the political ideology of slaveholders and their allies and abettors. Overlooking this relationship of liberal humanism and slavery—seeing liberalism merely as an insufficient approach to slavery—means offering an incomplete critique of both.
Liberal humanism has long been central to the political ideology of slaveholders and their allies and abettors.
Strange though it may seem today, liberalism—the political doctrine that attributed rights to individuals that no government, no matter how democratic or just, could violate—offered one of the most important legal and ideological protections for slavery in the nineteenth century. Liberalism defined rights as private, and the ultimate such right was the right to hold private property. Racism was, of course, central to the definition of some human beings as property. But liberalism meant that no matter what a legislator or judge thought of people of African descent or the morality of holding slaves, the state could not interfere with private property rights. In its infamous 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford decision, the Supreme Court not only denied citizenship and rights to people of African descent, but also affirmed that slavery enjoyed the same constitutional protections as every other form of property-holding. Despite the genuine moral revulsion of many liberals toward slavery, the individual right to private property stymied efforts to overthrow it. We might say the same of liberal responses to any number of catastrophes we face today, from mass poverty to global climate change.
Affirmations of the special dignity of humanity also served to justify slavery. No less an authority than Aristotle reminded his elite male readers that their very humanity depended on slaves performing the labor necessary for their bodily survival, leaving them free to devote themselves to uniquely human pursuits. (For Aristotle these were philosophy, politics, and gymnastics.) The racism characteristic of European modernity only further bolstered this argument. The alleged dehumanization of enslaved people, which Johnson so rightly dismisses as empirically inaccurate and theoretically muddled, was also the ground of the alleged humanization of slaveholders. Humanity, for Aristotle—as well as for U.S. slavery apologists such as George Fitzhugh—was not a natural property of the human species but a ruling-class aspiration for the few that required the forced labor of the many.
That liberal humanism provided the central ideological perspective of white, middle-class abolitionists reveals the extent of their complicity in, if not precisely racial slavery, then the hierarchy of people and property of which racial slavery was a component. There is perhaps no better illustration of this than the first issue of the great middle-class anti-slavery newspaper, William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator. There we find a brief denunciation of David Walker’s Appeal . . . to the Colored Citizens of the World (1829), the famous pamphlet calling for armed resistance to the racist exploitation of African Americans in slave as well as wage labor. Immediately adjacent, a short editorial inveighs against those who would “inflame the minds of our working classes against the more opulent.” It was not working-class enemies of slavery but middle-class abolitionists who separated race and class, slavery and capitalism—the better to immunize the latter from the critiques of the former. The concept of racial capitalism, by contrast, reminds us that there is no viable analysis of racism or of capitalism that treats either in isolation.
For this reason I wholly agree with Johnson that scholars and activists should follow Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism. I think doing so requires developing not just Robinson’s concept of racial capitalism, but also his concept of a black radical tradition in a complex dialogue with Marxism.
As Johnson suggests, what Robinson analyzed as the black radical tradition offers a more promising perspective than liberal humanism for understanding slavery and combatting ongoing racial capitalism. For Robinson this tradition was not simply a response to racial capitalism or enslavement; it had African roots prior to, and independent of, the forms of oppression it combatted. “The Black radical tradition,” he wrote, “casts doubt on the extent to which capitalism penetrated and re-formed social life and on its ability to create entirely new categories of human experience stripped bare of the historical consciousness embedded in culture. . . . After all it had been as an emergent African people and not as slaves that Black men and women had opposed enslavement.” Robinson does not reduce the black radical tradition to a static, ahistorical, unitary culture; that is why he refers to an “emergent African people” comprised of many different cultures and classes and a broad range of cultural and political productions, from the social healing practices of Obeah, Vodou, and other Afro-Atlantic religions to the writings of contemporary black intellectuals.
It is in the black radical tradition that we can locate a humanism separate from—indeed antithetical to—the liberal, rights-bearing individualism.
It is in the black radical tradition that we can locate a humanism separate from—indeed antithetical to—the liberal, rights-bearing individualism that Johnson has so powerfully criticized. In his Discourse on Colonialism (1955), the Martiniquan intellectual Aimé Césaire marveled at the racism of those who both recoiled in horror at the atrocities the Nazis carried out in Europe and yet had long accepted similar atrocities in their own colonial empires. (In Africa those European colonial atrocities also found justification in a liberal humanist mission that claimed—falsely—to stamp out slavery while promoting “Christianity, Commerce, and Civilization.”) Césaire thus called for “a true humanism—a humanism made to the measure of the world.” This humanism would, for Césaire, result from communist revolutions, especially by black workers, who had been “doubly proletarianized and alienated.”
In the thick of the Algerian revolution, Césaire’s former pupil, Frantz Fanon, understood perhaps better than any how to practice the true humanism his teacher had called for: relentless anti-colonial and anti-capitalist revolution. For Fanon, humanism was accessible only via nationalism—one “explained, enriched, and deepened” (rather than abandoned, overcame, or transcended). Here Fanon’s nationalism converges with Robinson’s black radical tradition as well as with Marxism and the communist parties and states that supported decolonization. Césaire, Fanon, and so many other great luminaries of the tradition, including Robinson himself, were absolutely clear about the importance of communism and Marxism to their work against colonialism and racism.
Here I find myself disagreeing with Johnson, who, like Robinson, proposes what I regard as an overly sharp distinction between “orthodox” Marxism and the black radical tradition. To be sure, these are distinct traditions, but even what Johnson calls (verging on caricature) “uninflected Marxism” is far more capacious, far less “authoritarian,” than he allows.
The Marxist position that Johnson describes as orthodox appears to be that of the U.S. historian Eugene Genovese, who, unlike Marx and most mainstream Marxists, held that American slavery was a pre-capitalist social formation. Genovese’s position has its roots in a late nineteenth-century dispute between Marxists and Populists in Russia. Russian Marxists at that time insisted that Russian agriculture needed first to pass through a stage of capitalism before a transition to socialism could be contemplated, whereas Populists held that Russian peasants could build socialism directly, on the basis of their communal landholdings. Lenin, at least until the October Revolution, held on to the stage theory of his Marxist comrades. Marx himself, however, sided with the Populists in his 1881 letter to Vera Zasulich.
Throughout his long career, Marx emphasized that, while slavery had existed for most of human history, the enslavement of people of African descent in the Americas was a unique and integral component of modern global capitalism. He stated this clearly in Poverty of Philosophy (1847), and it remained a theme of constant, growing importance in his subsequent work, from his voluminous writings on the U.S. Civil War, through, as Kevin Anderson has recently shown, the three volumes of Capital. Though it has long been rejected by most Marxists, the stage theory that characterizes slavery as pre-capitalist continues to flourish among liberal modernization theorists in the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and elsewhere.
Whatever the merits of Genovese’s account of U.S. slavery as pre-capitalist, taking it as Marxist orthodoxy—whether in praise or condemnation—mischaracterizes Marxism. In doing so it sets Marxism at odds with the black radical tradition, which has long been one of its most important interlocutors. What Johnson says of James Oakes’s counterfactual, “science fiction” account of capitalism without slavery could also be said of Johnson’s account of a Marxism without Césaire and Fanon, as well as W. E. B. Du Bois, C. L. R. James, and so many others. We should take seriously that flash of the future that Du Bois glimpsed in the past, in the revolution of African American workers in the South during and after the Civil War: “one of the most extraordinary experiments of Marxism that the world, before the Russian revolution, had seen.”
Scholars elsewhere in the Americas have been less likely than those in the United States to classify slavery as pre-capitalist, a relic from the past. In the 1960s Andre Gunder Frank analyzed what he called “the development of underdevelopment” to show that the economic forms that liberal modernizers characterized as backward or primitive are in fact coeval components of an international capitalist division of labor. More recently, scholars rooted in the related field of World Systems Theory, including Dale Tomich and Michael Zeuske, have analyzed how capitalism and slavery developed together, particularly in the industrial transformation of plantation production in nineteenth-century Cuba.
The Peruvian sociologist Anibal Quijano has built on the work of scholars in this tradition to offer a profound explanation of racial capitalism in the Americas. According to Quijano, European colonizers in the Americas were the first to bring together a variety of already existing forms of labor coercion, from serfdom and slavery to independent craft production and wage labor, around a racial division of labor and for the purposes of capital accumulation. Capitalism and racism, Quijano suggests, emerged simultaneously, and originally, in the Americas. Refinements of manufacturing techniques in the northwest corner of Europe, so often imagined as capitalism proper, are, by comparison, trivial.
Scholars elsewhere in the Americas have been less likely than those in the United States to classify slavery as pre-capitalist.
For these reasons I share Johnson’s sense of the importance of Marxism and the black radical tradition, not just for what they tell us about capitalism, but also for the role they play in the struggles for justice against racial capitalism’s exploitation and oppression. I wonder, though, whether justice is yet another of those terms, along with agency and humanity, clustered around a liberalism too bound to racial capitalism to understand or overthrow it. As Ava DuVernay emphasized in her documentary 13th, the system of justice we have in the United States has been tasked by the Thirteenth Amendment with transferring human bondage from the plantation to the prison. The amendment explicitly permits “slavery” and “involuntary servitude,” after all, as “a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”
Césaire denounced the racism of Eurocentric humanism to call for a “humanism made to the measure of the world,” and we in the United States ought to denounce our own racist justice system to call for a justice made to the measure of the world. But we should also consider the mechanics and practicalities of bringing justice to justice, much as Césaire proposed bringing humanism to humanism. For thinkers such as Césaire and Marx, the transition from the merely formal to the truly human occurs not simply by completing the work of the (necessarily racist, imperialist, enslaving) bourgeoisie. It occurs through revolution.
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February 21, 2018
9 Min read time