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When was "ZOMG!!! Socialism!!!!" first deployed in Congress? In 1848, in defense of slavery

The Junto is a very good blog for American history geeks -- and who doesn't want to be an American history geek? As far as the story in the headline goes:

As far as I can make out, the first reference to “socialism” on the floor of Congress came from North Carolina representative Abraham Venable in July 1848. During a debate over the Wilmot Proviso, Venable indulged himself in a familiar litany of destructive Northern manias, which ranged from “the wicked schemes of Garrison” to “the wild excesses of Millerism, and of Latter-Day Saints, the abominations of Socialism, and of Fourieriesm… and all the numerous fanaticisms which spring up and flourish in their free soil…”[3]

This kind of pro-slavery, anti-Northern rant was the context for most mentions of “socialism” in Congress during the next several years. As Karl Marx himself pointed out, once the European revolutions of 1848 encouraged conservatives to identify their opponents with the s-word, they began to do so with mechanical consistency: “the theme remains always the same, the verdict is ever ready and invariably reads: ‘Socialism!’ Even bourgeois liberalism is declared socialistic… bourgeois financial reform socialistic. It was socialistic to build a railway where a canal already existed, and it was socialistic to defend oneself with a cane when one was attacked with a rapier.”[4]

In America, strikingly, it was most socialistic to question the practice of owning property in other human beings.[5] Yet the southern planters who cried “Socialism!” had a better case to make than most conservatives. The anti-slavery movement, in its determination to redefine the idea of property itself, did pose a revolutionary threat to America’s existing political economy.

Calhoun himself, as Hofstadter noted, linked criticism of slavery to criticism of capital as early as 1836: “A very slight modification of the arguments used against the institutions which sustain the property and security of the South would make them equally effectual against the institutions of the North, including banking, in which so vast an amount of property and capital is invested.”

In his 1850 speech, Robert Hunter turned Calhoun’s observation into a prediction: “Sir, it is well that we should consider where these abolition doctrines will lead us. The property holder of the North may experience no inconvenience from them as yet, but his time will come—sooner or later, it must come.”

For many historians, the larger anti-slavery threat to property came during Radical Reconstruction—and then was beaten back by fearful Northern capitalists.[6] Perhaps, as some have recently argued, the property holder’s time will come again. If it does, we can be sure that contemporary conservatives, like their antebellum ancestors, will have no hesitation about dropping the s-bomb.

If you look at the Civil War as a war between two capitalist systems -- one founded on human ownership, the other on human rental -- then the "Civil War" looks a lot more like a revolution, where an entire political economy is overthrown and extirpated, and the "Revolution" looks a lot more like a civil war where the Atlantic is the Mason-Dixon Line. The catastrophic failure of Reconstruction to wipe out the slave power also appears in sharp relief; we should ended doing to Confederate iconography what the Germans did to Nazi iconography. Instead we get the Stars and Bars plastered with cavalier abandon over consumer goods from coffee holders to caps to trucks, wherever the need to show reaction in the form of faux rebellion manifests itself. Too bad John Wilkes Booth didn't miss....

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Submitted by transcriber on

I don't know enough about any of it. I'm certainly not for slavery but the war makes me sad too, and for the people of the South, for all of us really. I think the South had a right to secede. How could they not, without repudiating what America was? In that sense I have sympathy or empathy for seeing that in the Confederate flag; independence, self-determination. But what it really meant and means to those who chose and choose it as their symbol? I don't know. I think I don't trust any of the front reasons or pushers for war.

I keep thinking about the Kennedy quote about those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable. There must be better ways to reason together.

I saw a quote in an obit recently about a journalist who covered the Vietnam war. He said, "The more we won, the more we lost." He was shaking his head at the military who just didn't get it. I think... Civil War, WWI, WWII... maybe even the Revolutionary War? England had slavery too and legislated its way out of it. Why didn't we?

(as I'm writing this I'm seeing a tweet about Oprah and the Civil War amendments subtitled "In The Democrat/Liberal/Socialist Party" -- what's up with that? https:// twitter.com/ mclark1951/statuses/466630372344610816 )

Submitted by lambert on

... going to relitigate the Civil War! That should be fun...

* * *

I think slavery was a great evil and had to be extirpated. No more coffles! (That is, I disagree with the "slavery is a positive good" theorists. I worked in factories as a wage laborer for some years, and I far prefer human rental to the horrid, bodily intimacy of being owned and enslaved; and the slaves believe this too, because otherwise they wouldn't try to escape!

The state of enslavement, and the institutions and cultural attitudes required to support, also create corrosive and horrid multi-generational moral and political issues, as IIRC Jessica enlightened me on regarding the (mostly) former slave states of Southeast Asia. I don't want to be smiled at -- happy, smiling Thais! -- because I fall into the category of "master" or "overseer"; it's repellent. So I accept the price in lives paid, which is of course easy to do from my armchair, and even though the war, being fought to preserve the Union, was the the occasion of ending slavery, rather than the goal. (I advocate non-violence for strategic reasons; I am not a pacifist.)

I don't accept the idea that slavery would have ended naturally by itself; slavery, as Jefferson calculated in the margins of his notebooks, was extremely profitable; imagine having a thing like a washing machine or a power saw or a coffee grinder that worked for you, and also reproduced itself, so if you just waited, you had a natural increase of washing machines! (Or power saws or coffee grinders). The amount of capital invested "human resources" was immense, easily comparable to the capital invested in machine tools and machines in the "free" (wage labor) states. Some argue from soil exhaustion, but that's why we have petroleum-based agriculture, no?

Further, the states of the Confederacy had an extremely efficient and profitable global economy optimized for agricultural export; we might think of their success (and it was success) as being an early example of globalization, as British mills with American cotton destroyed the textile industry in India. (This is also the answer to why Britain could legislate their way out of slavery, and the US could not. See also the gag rules in Congress that forbade aboliitionist petitions.)

So imagine the scenario 50 or 100 years on: Two immense nations on the North American continent, side by side, one based on owning humans, the other based on renting them. So what happens when slaves escape across the border between the two? Does the North send them back, making the the Fugitive Slave Act into international law, and becoming complicit into the bargain? How does that work?

And how does that work in the international context? Remember the European left post-1848 were very much looking to the US to see what we would do, since at the same time they were -- AFAIK -- fighting against their own forms of slavery, as serfdom and other feudal forms of social relations.

The only scenario I can imagine that would justify no Civil War would be this: The argument has been made (too lazy to find the link) that American workers didn't organize beyond the level of strikes and political parties to the level of discipline/organization/violence that might have been required to overthrow the oligarchs of that era, because they'd already fought the Civil War in the 1860s and had no appetite (justly enough) to fight a second one in the 1880s or 1890s. So one might imagine the trade-off is between a Slave Confederacy (killed) vs. a Socialist Union (never born). But if so, we're right back to the question of fugitive slaves: How could a socialist Union send slaves back to their masters? Conversely, how could a slave Confederacy tolerate anything less? The entire border between the two states, thousands of miles, would be a running sore.

* * *

So that is a brain dump of my thoughts on the Civil War, a topic which, along with slavery, seems to be coming up on the charts these days. Obviously, I'm viewing this through a personal lens, since I am not only a WASP but a Yankee by heritage.

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Submitted by transcriber on

Well, I'm a Californian, so y'all look crazy to me.

I'm not in any sense standing up for slavery. And I'm going to stop myself from writing my first comment all over again.

This is interesting, although I don't get the connection why Britain could legislate and we couldn't, if we're all the same multinational company:

Further, the states of the Confederacy had an extremely efficient and profitable global economy optimized for agricultural export; we might think of their success (and it was success) as being an early example of globalization, as British mills with American cotton destroyed the textile industry in India. (This is also the answer to why Britain could legislate their way out of slavery, and the US could not. See also the gag rules in Congress that forbade aboliitionist petitions.)

And I can't see why you can have a war but you can't change your rules.

And America was globalization -- am I arguing with you or restating your thesis?:

http://www.thomhartmann.com/blog/2009/04/real-boston-tea-party-was-again...

The East India Company's influence had always been pervasive in the colonies. Indeed, it was not the Puritans but the East India Company that founded America. The Puritans traveled to America on ships owned by the East India Company, which had already established the first colony in North America, at Jamestown, in the Company-owned Commonwealth of Virginia, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi. The commonwealth was named after the “Virgin Queen,” Elizabeth, who had chartered the corporation.

Lambert, you posted or linked to an interesting story a ways back about the founding of America and how the intense focus on vehement freedom was inextricably linked with vicious slavery... something about a slave ship that was taken over by the slaves... there were a lot of interesting ideas in that, not much of which I can remember now. Just the idea of projection... there was a bitter British quote about Jefferson and slaves.

And this:

How could a socialist Union send slaves back to their masters? Conversely, how could a slave Confederacy tolerate anything less? The entire border between the two states, thousands of miles, would be a running sore.

Well, the thing that comes to mind is the same thing that always comes to my mind, juries. Some rule this way, some rule that. The idea is not to find a final solution, but to have a venue for reasoning, and you keep on reasoning. Sometimes I think I'd throw all the laws out and just keep juries. Make the focus on problem solving, not losers and punishment, hellfire and damnation. War as a solution just sucks. The more you win, the more you lose.

Sorry, I'm not focusing well. I think, hazily, that a key figure could have been Mansfield in England, both jury-wise and slave-wise. So I have a confetti of clues and not a good answer beyond that. The 1880s and the oligarchs -- there you go with immaculate conception/deception corporate personhood at the pen of an ex-RR president court clerk in the 1886 Santa Clara case. Saw a stat once that the people who have overwhelmingly used the 14th amendment in court cases are not black people or people at all, but corporations.