Best of All Worlds

James Oakes

  • Slavery in White and Black: Class and Race in the Southern Slaveholders’ New World Order by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene Genovese
    Cambridge, 314 pp, £14.99, December 2008, ISBN 978 0 521 72181 3

In 1965 Eugene Genovese published his first book, The Political Economy of Slavery, a stunning reinterpretation of the antebellum South. Although he wrote as a Marxist, he revived the bourgeois critique of slavery most closely associated with Adam Smith. The class conflict that might have driven the history of the South was stifled, he argued, by the slave owners’ paternalism towards their slaves and by their hegemony over farmers who did not own slaves. Yet there was no mistaking his Marxism: at a time when most American historians rejected political economy as a form of economic determinism, Genovese placed class analysis at the centre of his work. He argued that slavery lacked the rational efficiency that characterised a genuinely capitalist economy, that it inhibited Southern economic development and, most important, that it gave rise to a ruling class that was intrinsically and increasingly hostile to the emerging bourgeoisie of the North. He thereby situated the American Civil War as one of the revolutionary struggles over capitalist development that he saw as the distinguishing feature of modern global history.

Four years later, in 1969, Genovese published The World the Slaveholders Made, less successful than its predecessor but no less unorthodox. By taking the ideological defence of slavery seriously, Genovese discovered what he took to be the most substantial critique of capitalism in American history. Once the opponents of slavery had begun to intensify their assault, he argued, the slaveholders had no choice but to defend their ‘way of life’, and this involved a stinging counter-attack against capitalism itself. Persuasive or not, the argument was a tour de force.

Impressive though those books were, most of the weaknesses that would bedevil Genovese’s subsequent work were already evident in them. He was clearer about the flaws of the capitalist system the slaveholders were attacking than the flaws of the slave system they were defending. On the basis of the relative economic backwardness of Southern society he made an unwarranted leap to the conclusion that slaveholders disdained material ambition. He posited an artificial distinction between slavery as a class system and its racial component, arguing implausibly that racism was an alien element that had infected slavery. He made inflated claims for slavery’s apologists. He was unwilling to pay more than lip service to the horrors of slavery itself.

In the 1970s Genovese started to write with his wife, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese. A prolific scholar in her own right, she is best known for Within the Plantation Household, a study of women in the antebellum South, published in 1988. Though she died in 2007, she and her husband are listed as co-authors of Slavery in White and Black. Based on a great deal of new research, the book will nevertheless seem familiar to anyone who has managed to keep up with even a fraction of the couple’s prodigious output.

They have ‘long insisted’, Genovese explains at the outset, that in the decades before the Civil War Southern slaveholders produced a sophisticated defence of slavery and, with it, a powerful critique of capitalist ‘market relations’. Slavery in White and Black gives this body of thought a label, ‘Slavery in the Abstract’, a term the authors repeat hundreds of times in relentless capital letters, by which they mean the view that slavery was the best form of social organisation for all labourers, regardless of race. The burden of Slavery in White and Black is to prove that over time more and more white Southerners subscribed to the ‘essentials’ of Slavery in the Abstract, and thus dissented from the general American celebration of free labour.

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