This is part of a series
May 4, 2018
Slavery as Socialism
Smith explains how George Fitzhugh defended slavery on the grounds that it provides an ideal system of socialism.
According to George Fitzhugh (in Cannibals All! Or, Slaves Without Masters, 1856), “the works of the socialists contain the true defence of slavery.” Fitzhugh deeply admired Aristotle’s defense of slavery, but “Nothing written on the subject of slavery from the time of Aristotle, is worth reading, until the days of the modern Socialists.” This was before the advent of Marxian socialism, of course, so by “modern socialists” Fitzhugh did not necessarily mean the advocates of state socialism. He also meant individualistic socialists, such as Stephen Pearl Andrews and others who defended “sovereignty of the individual.”
As indicated in my last essay, Fitzhugh quoted over 10 pages from The Science of Society (1851), by the individualist-anarchist and abolitionist Stephen Pearl Andrews. Fitzhugh praised Andrews as “far the ablest writer on moral science that America has produced.” He continued: “Though an abolitionist, he has not a very bad opinion of slavery.”
A major reason for Fitzhugh’s admiration of Andrews becomes evident when we consider the latter’s approach to slavery. Although Andrews was a serious abolitionist, his definition of “slavery” did not depend on the distinction between voluntary and coerced labor. Rather, he regarded slavery as the extreme end of a scale of the exploitation of labor, so there existed lesser forms of slavery in free, commercial societies. Here is how Andrews put it, in a passage quoted by Fitzhugh:
The philanthropy of the age is moving heaven and earth to the overthrow of the institution of slavery. But slavery has no scientific definition. It is thought to consist in the feature of chattelism, but an ingenious lawyer would run his pen through every statute upon slavery in existence, and expunge that fiction of the law, and yet leave slavery, for all practical purposes, precisely what it is now. It needs only to appropriate the services of the man by operation of law, instead of the man himself. The only distinction then, left between his condition and that of the laborer who is robbed by the operation of a false commercial principle, would be in the fact of the oppression being more tangible, and undisguisedly degrading to his manhood.
If, in any transaction, I get from you some portion of your earning without an equivalent, I begin to make you my slave—to confiscate you to my uses; if I get a larger portion of your services without an equivalent, I make you still further my slave; and, finally, if I obtain the whole of your services without an equivalent,—except the means of keeping you in working condition for my own sake,—I make you completely my slave. Slavery is merely one development of a general system of human oppression, for which we have no comprehensive term in English, but which the French Socialists denominate exploitation,—the abstraction, directly or indirectly, from the working classes of the fruits of their labor. In the case of the slave the instrument of that abstraction is force and legal enactments. In the case of the laborer, generally, it is speculation in the large sense, or profit-making.
Working from a labor theory of value, Andrews believed that labor should be the standard of exchange in commercial transactions. Capital per se possesses no productive powers. It is merely accumulated labor, so capitalists who live by rent, interest, and other species of capital investment are in fact living at the expense of workers who actually produce something. Thus far Fitzhugh agreed with Andrews and other “socialists.” He praised their critical analyses of the antagonistic relationship between capital and labor. But having identified the problem, explained Fitzhugh, socialists fell short when it came to solutions. Some founded “utopian” communities that sought to alleviate the conflict, while others predicted the onset of the millennium after society had been purified of its major sins. (In 1851, Andrews co-founded, with his mentor Josiah Warren, Modern Times in New York, which used labor notes as the currency of exchange.) The vast majority of utopian social experiments had failed (Modern Times lasted for 12 years), according to Fitzhugh, yet socialists recommended that their economic system (based on the “cost principle”) be applied to all of society. Fitzhugh maintained that this would be disastrous. The conflict between capital and labor was inevitable in any society, so the only permanent solution was to minimize the conflict as much as possible. And slavery, which had existed for thousands of years, was the best remedy yet devised.
Fitzhugh shifted the ground on which defenders of slavery usually argued with abolitionists. He argued that slavery advocates need not adopt a defensive posture and defend slavery on moral grounds, since Northerners were as guilty of exploiting their laborers as were Southerners. The only relevant question was: Which system, slavery or “free” labor, produced a better outcome? As Fitzhugh put it in A Controversy on Slavery (a written debate with abolitionist A. Hogeboom, published in 1857): “Read the work of your able philosopher, Stephen Pearl Andrews, on “The Science of Society,” and you will see how slavery does exist in (so-called) free society.” If wage-slavery had not yet reached its inevitable consequences in the North, as it had in England and Europe, this was because plenty of land was still available in the West, so dissatisfied laborers had some place to relocate. But as the West became populated, all the evils of a free society would manifest themselves, including infidelity, free love, labor riots, poverty, and so forth. Fitzhugh cast down the utilitarian gauntlet to Hogeboom:
I will agree and consent that slavery is wrong, and should be abolished, if you can prove that the “greater number of featherless bipeds” will be physically better off by its abolition. I think that nine-tenths of mankind are best off when they are ridden with a tight rein, and plentiful applications of the whip and spur. … Such [people], embracing nine-tenths, probably nineteen-twentieths of mankind, require masters as well to protect and to provide for them as to govern them.
Although Fitzhugh shared the racial prejudice against blacks that was typical of his time, his defense of slavery was not based on racism. White laborers would also benefit from working as slaves, he claimed. Laborers in the North were slaves without masters, and this made their living conditions worse than laborers in the South, who were slaves with masters. A slave plantation was a nearly perfect socialist community, since slaves received food, shelter, and medical care from cradle to grave, regardless of their physical condition—advantages that Northern workers did not enjoy. All these advantages were provided by the masters that did not exist in the North. Stories of cruelty by masters against their slaves, which had been widely circulated by abolitionists, were the exception rather than the rule. Most owners regarded slaves as members of their extended family, and treated them humanely.
As indicated by the title of Fitzhugh’s most famous book, we are all cannibals insofar as we must live off the labor of others. But slavery reduces the exploitation of laborers to a minimum. If, as was commonly claimed, the products of free labor are less expensive than the products of slave labor, this was because slavery allots to the slave a higher proportion of the products of his own labor than does the wage system. Again, the master assures this, whereas capitalistic employers will pay only the minimum required to hire workers. Those mini-islands of slavery in the South, therefore, are more just to workers than are factories in the North. Fitzhugh wrote:
Slavery, besides associating men more closely as the socialists propose, also associates labor and capital, and thus renders them more productive. It also agrees with communism in supplying each one according to his wants, and not according to his labor. It is far superior either in this, that the head of the association owning its members is impelled alike by domestic affection and self-interest to take good and kindly care of them. Man takes the best care of that property which is most valuable. Slaves are not only the most valuable property, but they are weak and dependent human beings, and we can’t help loving what is frail and dependent.
Free laborers are at constant war with their employers. They seek high wages—the employers struggle to depress wages—and also at war with each other, by underbidding to get employment. Hence, the free laborer is treated worse and fares worse than any other animal on an English farm; and hence the slave always fares and is treated far better than mere brute animals.
Fitzhugh declared that only a small minority of people—perhaps 1 out of every 20—will be clever enough to rise to the top in a competitive economy. The majority will be vulnerable to exploitation, so they deserve the protection of others. But this protection requires control, and slavery provides both:
All socialists, indeed I might say, all men agree that the common laboring class and all the weaker members of society require more of protection than is now afforded them. But, to protect men, we must have the power of controlling them. We must first enslave them before we can protect them.
Fitzhugh’s position was nicely summarized by Joseph Dorfman, in the second volume of The Economic Mind in American Civilization (1946):
Fitzhugh declared that the conservative principle proclaims the duty of society to protect the weak. Effective protection necessitates control. Therefore society has the duty of enslaving the weak, especially in old countries where property is held by a few. The philanthropic-minded, justly desiring power to control the conduct of his beneficiaries, should invest in slaves because where his control is greatest, his ability to do real good is most perfect. Thus the ideal communism would be to turn over the pauper whites in the North at present to the possessors of capital. The North must realize that the masses require “more of protection and the philosophers more of control.” The mass cannot be governed by “law and moral suasion, but only by despotic discretion.”