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Hubert Harrison
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Jeffrey B. Perry Blog

Slavery as Capitalism, Slaveholders as Capitalists, Enslaved as Proletarians

January 19, 2012

Tags: Slavery as Capitalism, Slaveholders as Capitalists, Enslaved as Proletarians, Theodore W. Allen, W. E. B. Du Bois, Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, Lewis C. Gray, Roger W. Shugg, Hubert Harrison, David Roediger, Winthrop D. Jordan, Eric Williams, C. L. R. James

In his writings [Theodore W.] Allen sought to lay the basis for a class-conscious, anti-white-supremacist, counter narrative of American history. He offered “the groundwork for a total re-interpretation of U.S. history” that he felt was “unfettered by white labor apology which consistently locates Afro-Americans outside the working class.” This “new and consistent interpretation of colonial history and the origin of racial slavery” would, he believed, have significant implications “for interpreting all subsequent periods” of United States history.

Of major importance in this counter-narrative is Allen’s analysis of slavery as capitalism, slaveholders as capitalists, and the enslaved as proletarians. In describing “the capitalist development which motored the Anglo-American racial slavery system,” Allen’s historical work shows “that the means of production on the plantations were monopolized by one class,” that “non-owners were reduced to absolute dependence upon the owners and could live only by the alienation of their own labor power to the service of the owning class,” that “the products of the plantation took the form of commodities,” and “that the aim of production was the accumulation and expansion of capital.” He emphasizes that “slaveholders were capitalists – a plantation bourgeoisie – and the slaves were proletarians.” He also points out that the “proposition that the United States plantation system based on chattel bond-labor was a capitalist operation is a widely recognized principle of political economy,” he cites a disparate group of writers including “view Caribbean slavery in this light, as well.”

Allen calls special attention to the fact that Karl Marx invariably treated the American plantation economy as capitalist enterprise and quotes Marx that “The production of surplus-value is the absolute law of this [capitalist – TWA] mode of production.” He similarly quotes Marx that “The overworking of the Negro [bond-laborer – TWA] . . . was no longer a question of obtaining from him a certain quantity of useful products [as in ancient classical slavery – TWA]. It was now a question of the production of surplus-value itself.” Referring to circumstances where both rent and profit go to the owner-employer Marx explained, “Where capitalist conceptions predominate, as they did upon the American plantations, this entire surplus-value is regarded as profit.” Finally, Allen quotes Marx before the Civil War discussing the nature of differential rent and commenting that while free wage-labor is the normal basis of capitalist production, still “the capitalist mode of production exists” in the Anglo-American plantation colonies based on “the slavery of Negroes.”

In the course of his work Allen addresses a question that might be raised – How can slavery be capitalist, since it is not based on wage labor? He responds, “What is historically significant about the wages system is that is based on the general transformation of labor-power into a commodity, and that in turn is due to the fact that the producers have lost ownership of the means production, and therefore can live only by the sale of their labor power.” He cites Marx’s letter to Lincoln, that the African-American bond-laborer was “sold without his concurrence, while the European-American worker could ‘sell himself,’” and Marx’s statement that “‘the business in which slaves are used [in the United States] is conducted by capitalists,’ and for the same purpose, the accumulation of capital by the extraction of surplus value from the exploitation of commodity-producing labor.” He notes, “the bond-labor form was a contradiction of the basic requisites of general capitalist development – a contradiction that was purged away in the Civil War,” but emphasizes that “[for] a time that form of labor was not a barrier to rapid capitalist accumulation, but its main engine.”

(For more on this topic, including footnotes, see “The Developing Conjuncture and Some Insights From Hubert Harrison and Theodore W. Allen on the Centrality of the Fight Against White Supremacy” (“Cultural Logic,” 2010) by Jeffrey B. Perry at http://www.jeffreybperry.net/works.htm (top left)

Just Published -- “The Developing Conjuncture and Some Insights From Hubert Harrison and Theodore W. Allen on the Centrality of the Fight Against White Supremacy” by Jeffrey B. Perry

January 1, 2012

Tags: “The Developing Conjuncture and Some Insights From Hubert Harrison and Theodore W. Allen on the Centrality of the Fight Against White Supremacy”, Jeffrey B. Perry, Cultural Logic, Daedalus







“The Developing Conjuncture and Some Insights From Hubert Harrison and Theodore W. Allen on the Centrality of the Fight Against White Supremacy” by Jeffrey B. Perry has been published by "Cultural Logic" and is now available at http://clogic.eserver.org/2010/Perry.pdf
Appended to the article is a short piece on how "Daedalus," the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based journal of the American Academy of the Arts and Sciences, handled an earlier, shorter version of the article.

Hubert Harrison:
The Voice of
Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918

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