Monday, April 27, 2015

Marx on Slavery in his 1846 Letter to Annenkov

Marx had a curious analysis of slavery in a letter of December 28, 1846 to the Russian scholar P. V. Annenkov:
Freedom and slavery constitute an antagonism. There is no need for me to speak either of the good or of the bad aspects of freedom. As for slavery, there is no need for me to speak of its bad aspects. The only thing requiring explanation is the good side of slavery. I do not mean indirect slavery, the slavery of proletariat; I mean direct slavery, the slavery of the Blacks in Surinam, in Brazil, in the southern regions of North America.

Direct slavery is as much the pivot upon which our present-day industrialism turns as are machinery, credit, etc. Without slavery there would be no cotton, without cotton there would be no modern industry. It is slavery which has given value to the colonies, it is the colonies which have created world trade, and world trade is the necessary condition for large-scale machine industry. Consequently, prior to the slave trade, the colonies sent very few products to the Old World, and did not noticeably change the face of the world. Slavery is therefore an economic category of paramount importance. Without slavery, North America, the most progressive nation, would he transformed into a patriarchal country. Only wipe North America off the map and you will get anarchy, the complete decay of trade and modern civilisation. But to do away with slavery would be to wipe America off the map. Being an economic category, slavery has existed in all nations since the beginning of the world. All that modern nations have achieved is to disguise slavery at home and import it openly into the New World. After these reflections on slavery, what will the good Mr Proudhon do? He will seek the synthesis of liberty and slavery, the true golden mean, in other words the balance between slavery and liberty.”
Letter from Marx to Pavel Vasilyevich Annenkov, December 28, 1846.
https://marxists.anu.edu.au/archive/marx/works/1846/letters/46_12_28.htm
It is rather odd indeed to see Marx declare slavery as “the pivot upon which our present-day industrialism turns,” and furthermore regard this as part of the “good side of slavery.” Britain, the greatest capitalist economy in the 1840s, had, as everybody knows, moved to abolish slavery in virtually all parts of its empire by the time of the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, and the Slave Trade Act of 1807 had abolished the slave trade in the British Empire.

Peculiar too is the view that if slavery were abolished in America, then this would “wipe America off the map.” When the US abolished slavery in the Civil war, this did not result in the collapse of the US economy which was in fact quickly industrialising and on the path to becoming the largest economy in the world.

5 comments:

  1. Marx is actually taking the piss out of Proudhon here.

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  2. The quote in context:

    "Let me now give you an example of Mr Proudhon's dialectics.

    Freedom and slavery constitute an antagonism. There is no need for me to speak either of the good or of the bad aspects of freedom. As for slavery, there is no need for me to speak of its bad aspects. The only thing requiring explanation is the good side of slavery. I do not mean indirect slavery, the slavery of proletariat; I mean direct slavery, the slavery of the Blacks in Surinam, in Brazil, in the southern regions of North America."

    etc

    https://marxists.anu.edu.au/archive/marx/works/1846/letters/46_12_28.htm

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  3. This almost identical passage from The Poverty of Philosophy indicates that Marx is talking about Proudhon's theories in the above quote:

    "Let us see now to what modifications M. Proudhon subjects Hegel's dialectics when he applies it to political economy.

    For him, M. Proudhon, every economic category has two sides – one good, the other bad. He looks upon these categories as the petty bourgeois looks upon the great men of history: Napoleon was a great man; he did a lot of good; he also did a lot of harm.

    The good side and the bad side, the advantages and drawbacks, taken together form for M. Proudhon the contradiction in every economic category.

    The problem to be solved: to keep the good side, while eliminating the bad.

    Slavery is an economic category like any other. Thus it also has its two sides. Let us leave alone the bad side and talk about the good side of slavery. Needless to say, we are dealing only with direct slavery, with Negro slavery in Surinam, in Brazil, in the Southern States of North America.

    Direct slavery is just as much the pivot of bourgeois industry as machinery, credits, etc. Without slavery you have no cotton; without cotton you have no modern industry. It is slavery that gave the colonies their value; it is the colonies that created world trade, and it is world trade that is the precondition of large-scale industry. Thus slavery is an economic category of the greatest importance.

    Without slavery North America, the most progressive of countries, would be transformed into a patriarchal country. Wipe North America off the map of the world, and you will have anarchy – the complete decay of modern commerce and civilization. Cause slavery to disappear and you will have wiped America off the map of nations.[*1]

    Thus slavery, because it is an economic category, has always existed among the institutions of the peoples. Modern nations have been able only to disguise slavery in their own countries, but they have imposed it without disguise upon the New World.

    What would M. Proudhon do to save slavery? He would formulate the problem thus: preserve the good side of this economic category, eliminate the bad."

    https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1847/poverty-philosophy/ch02.htm

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    Replies
    1. Very interesting indeed. If this is in fact the proper context of the quotation, I stand corrected.

      cheers

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  4. "Marx is actually taking the piss out of Proudhon here."

    Nope, he is explaining how important slavery is to the capitalist economy and how it cannot be abolished.

    In terms of Marx's letter and book on Proudhon, they are simply dishonest. He starts the letter by saying he had “skimmed through it [Proudhon's book] in two days” and “read the book very cursorily” -- but he does not seem to have done much more reading if "The Poverty of Philosophy" is anything to go by.

    In terms of "The Poverty of Philosophy", it is a disgraceful work. Marx invents quotes, tampers with quotes, selectively quotes Proudhon, attributes to him ideas which he does not hold, proclaims certain things so giving the impression that Proudhon does not know it but in fact he does, etc.

    It is shocking that Marx does -- but since no Marxist (or, apparently, writer on Marx!) bothers to read Proudhon's book this is unknown (and why would a Marxist read it? Marx has proclaimed Proudhon an idiot...)

    I could go on about this, but here are a few useful links:

    The Appendix on Marx from my Proudhon anthology "Property is Theft!"
    http://anarchism.pageabode.com/pjproudhon/appendix-proudhon-and-marx.html

    The extracts from "System of Economic Contradictions" have footnotes comparing what Marx says Proudhon said and what he actually wrote:
    http://anarchism.pageabode.com/pjproudhon/system-of-economic-contradictions-1

    I'm working on a reply to Marx's dishonest diatribe which I've blogged about recently:

    http://anarchism.pageabode.com/anarcho/proudhon-marx-labour-notes-wage-labour

    http://anarchism.pageabode.com/anarcho/engels-housing-question-proudhon

    Also, a good introduction to how Marx later uses Proudhon methodology in 1857 after attacking it in 1847:
    http://monde-nouveau.net/IMG/pdf/Proudhon_and_German_philosophy.pdf

    Marx' "The Poverty of Philosophy" is not a work of honest polemic. The first published work of Marxism is a distortion, a work of bad faith.

    I should also mention Proudhon's later position on slavery in America and the civil war is discussed here:

    http://anarchism.pageabode.com/anarcho/proudhon-neither-washington-nor-richmond

    In terms of the quote provided by Marx, yes he is attacking Proudhon (falsely, as Proudhon's analysis of the contradictions of capitalism is not what Marx suggests it is). Marx, as can be seen, was against the abolition of slavery in 1847 as it would undermine the development of capitalism. As Engels later admitted:

    "This was perfectly correct for the year 1847. At that time the world trade of the United States was limited mainly to import of immigrants and industrial products, and export of cotton and tobacco, i.e., of the products of southern slave labour. The Northern States produced mainly corn and meat for the slave states. It was only when the North produced corn and meat for export and also became an industrial country, and when the American cotton monopoly had to face powerful competition, in India, Egypt, Brazil, etc., that the abolition of slavery became possible. And even then this led to the ruin of the South, which did not succeed in replacing the open Negro slavery by the disguised slavery of Indian and Chinese coolies"

    Iain
    An Anarchist FAQ
    http://www.anarchistfaq.org.uk

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