Sunday, April 22, 2012

Confederate "Heritage" Month 2012, April 22: John Calhoun on slavery and class struggle

"The Southern States are an aggregate, in fact, of communities, not of individuals. Every plantation is a little community, with the master at its head, who concentrates in himself the united interests of capital and labor, of which he is the common representative." So said John Calhoun, leader and theoretician of the Southern slaveowners.

It was Calhoun's formulation of the nature of class conflict in the United States and his attempts to apply its lessons to the politics of defending slavery that led historian Richard Hofstadter to label Calhoun "the Marx of the Master Class" in his 1948 book, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It.

Richard Nelson Current looked at Calhoun's theories of class conflict in "John C. Calhoun, Philosopher of Reaction" The Antioch Review 3/2 (Summer, 1943). He explains that Calhoun consistently saw his role as a defender of the wealthiest: the bankers and industrialists of the North, the slaveowners of the South. Especially the slaveowners of the South.

One of the arguments made by neo-Confederates in pursuit of their Holy Grail pseudohistorical point that slavery was not a cause of the Civil War is that there was a rivalry between the industrialists of the North and the planters of the South.

Which is true. Except it's thin sophistry as an argument that slavery was not involved in causing the war. The conflict was between a Northern capitalism based on free labor and a Southern capitalism based on a plantation economy operating on slave labor. As Lincoln said in the 1862 quote I used in the April 20 post, "without the institution of slavery ... the war could not have an existence."

Calhoun tried to get Northern capitalists to understand that they had a stake in supporting the slavery system in the South. And the core of his argument to them was that they had to fear a workers' revolt, while the South did not. And therefore they should make common cause with the slaveowners in supporting and extending the slavery system.

Current looks at some of the ways in which Calhoun as a political and social theorist seemed to share some of the assumptions that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were developing at the same time in Europe:

Historians have completely overlooked the key to Calhoun's political philosophy. That key is a concept of the class struggle. Before Calhoun, other Southern thinkers, notably James Madison and John Taylor of Caroline, had given expression to more or less well developed ideas of the conflict of social classes, for this was a notion familiar enough to a generation of Americans brought up largely on the history of ancient Greece and Rome. But these others took a liberal view, John Taylor, for one, favoring co-operation of farmers and artisans against their mutual enemy, the moneyed power. Calhoun was strictly the reactionary. Unlike the others, moreover, he used a terminology and treatment which in many respects anticipated the later "scientific" approach of Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx. [my emphasis]
Calhoun's class-solidarity argument was based on the planters' propaganda image of slavery as being a friendly paternalistic system with happy workers in the form of human chattel. The social forces producing a potential apocalyptic class struggle in the North simply did not operate in the South, according to his line of argument:

Presenting as he did a common ground for planter-capitalist collaboration against the class enemy, Calhoun intended his theory not merely as a bogey with which to frighten the manufacturers into yielding on the sectional issues of the day. Anyhow, he was not so naive as to suppose that his words, by themselves, could induce the capitalists to see the light. "That any force of argument can change public opinion ... ," he wrote in 1831, "I do not expect; but I feel assured that the coming confusion and danger, which I have long foreseen, will." Though the revolutionary movements then under way in Europe failed to have the repercussions which he anticipated for the United States, the time of confusion and danger finally seemed at hand when the financial crisis of 1834 beset the nation. Calhoun now persuaded himself that his doctrines were rapidly growing popular among the well-to-do in the North. Thousands were beginning to look to the South for protection not only against the "usurpation" of Andrew Jackson, but also against the "needy and corrupt" among their own population. "They begin to feel," Calhoun congratulated himself, "that they have more to fear from their own people, than we from our slaves." A year later, though the financial crisis had passed without fulfilling his expectations, he still nourished a hope that the capitalists would be converted sooner or later through fear of a mass uprising. [my emphasis]
Calhoun understood Andrew Jackson's brand of politics as representing the interests of those "needy and corrupt" grumblers in the North, despite Jackson's being a slaveowner and Southerner himself. And he was correct in that assumption.

Current also found other commonalities between the theories of John Calhoun and Karl Marx:

He started, as Marx and Engels were also to do, with John Locke's so-called labor theory of value. ...

Calhoun anticipated a number of the other Marxist doctrines. Among these were the following: (1) the eventual division of society into only two classes, capitalist and proletarian; (2) the gradual expropriation of the bulk of the population by the capitalists, so that the propertied would become fewer and fewer and the property-less more and more numerous; and (3) the ultimate impoverishment of the masses to a bare subsistence level.
My focus in this post is on describing Calhoun's framing of the class conflicts of his time in the US, not so much on the question of similarities between Calhoun's political theories and those of Marx. Current doesn't suggest that Marx' work directly influenced Calhoun. Calhoun died in 1950; The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels was published in 1848. Calhoun and other pro-slavery intellectuals were certainly aware of the Revolutions of 1848 in Europe. But, to put it very briefly, we're mostly talking here about Calhoun drawing conclusions from ideas that were "in the air" at the time. What we now know as economics today frames issues in market terms of prices and demands, following the "neo-classical" economics of the late nineteenth century. Economics, known as political economy is Calhoun's day, focused on production relations. So concepts like what Current describes as "John Locke's so-called labor theory of value" and David Ricardo's idea of an iron law of wages that would push the pay of industrial workers to subsistence levels were part of the general intellectual property of the "political economy" of the time.

There was also some general understanding of classes in the sense that Calhoun talked about them. In the United States, the concept of industrialists and planters as classes, or of laborers and farmers as classes, was not a exotic one. Nor is it strange in itself that Calhoun predicted a negative future for Northern capitalism. The Northern and Southern brands of capitalist business organization took very different forms in North and South, and they were in conflict. Calhoun had incentive to paint the dimmest possible picture of Northern capitalism and its fate. The few socialists and utopian thinkers of Calhoun's time didn't have to dig up their own criticisms of the existing capitalist system North or South. Northerners and Southerners were eagerly pointing out the evils of the existing system - in the other section of the country.

That an essentially reactionary thinker like Calhoun would point out the liklihood of a clash between Northern industrial workers and Northern business owners also has its parallels in Europe. According to Ernst Benz, the man responsible for introducing the word "proletariat" into German from French, a term that came to be heavily associated with the socialist movement, was one of Germany's most prominent reactionary philosophers, Franz von Baader. (Ernst Benz, "Franz von Baaders Gedanken über den 'Proletair'" Zeitschrift für Religions- und Geistesgeschichte 2/1948) Benedikt Franz Xaver von Baader (1765-1841) was a religious-minded Catholic philosopher. Lenz calls him the first social theorist from the German lands who occupied himself with the "social problem" of the new industrial working class. His political activity largely consisted of advice to monarchist regimes and to the Churches to come up with ameliorative reforms based on Christian principles before the workers came to prefer a non-religious, materialist revolutionary approach. Benz treats Baader as a conservative, but he is also commonly classified as a counterrevolutionary thinker, i.e., a reactionary opponent to the democratic and human rights ideals of the French and American Revolutions.

Based on his observations of the French Revolution of 1830 and also of conditions among the workers of England, Baader also concluded that the new working class would produce not only a political but a social revolution if trends continued as they were. But he was terrified of the prospect and wanted urgently to head it off, similarly to John Calhoun's framing of the issue. Benz in that article discusses several ways in which Von Baader's analysis of the social situation in Europe also anticipated that of Marx in coming years, a reminder of how many of these ideas were "in the air" during that period.

Calhoun was not an academic, but a politician. His ideas about class struggle were ones he used in his political goal of defending slavery:

... Calhoun was interested less in composing a well rounded statement of the theory than in using it for the practical purpose of defending the property of the planters.

On behalf of the planter class he appealed again and again to fellow conservatives among the bankers and manufacturers of the North. As each great sectional issue came to a head between 1828 and 1850, he was ready with a new instalment of his class-struggle argument.
And his position was taken up by others:

After Calhoun's death some of the apologists for a solid, proslavery South went much farther than he had gone. Jefferson Davis, horrified at the spread of strikes throughout the free world, made more explicit the parallel between abolitionism and socialism as twin attacks upon property. George Fitzhugh took a very different but even more extreme stand. In his Sociology for the South, or the Failure of Free Society, published at Richmond in 1854, he admitted the accuracy and justice of the socialist case against capitalism but asserted that the socialists overlooked the need for a master at the head of each of their ideal communities - a need which the Southern plantation system, or something like it, alone could meet. Fitzhugh praised slavery as the only workable form of socialism and urged the whole world to adopt it, at once, as the sole cure for class conflict and the other ills of competitive society!
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1 comment:

Douglas Johnson said...

Excellent post. Just read it for the first time. Curious what you think of Harry Jaffa's New Birth of Freedom.