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Class Act

Fruits of Merchant Capital: Slavery and Bourgeois Property in the Rise and Expansion of Capitalism

by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, by Eugene D. Genovese
Oxford University Press, 469 pp., $10.95 (paper)

From all sides we hear that historical scholarship is in a state of crisis. The basic premise of historical investigation—that significant knowledge can be gained from studying the past in a sequential way—has come under heavy attack. Fashionable schools of thought in fields like psychology, anthropology, linguistics, and literary criticism deny the relevance of history to any deep understanding of human consciousness and behavior. Clio, the muse that once inspired virtually all humanistic and social-scientific study, is in danger of being exiled to the fringes of intellectual and cultural life.

Historians themselves are partly to blame for this situation. For the most part they have refused to interest themselves in the theoretical grounds of their discipline and have avoided the kind of transnational or comparative approaches that might shed light on the origins and destiny of the modern world. Instead, they have cultivated narrow specialties, severely limited by geography, period, or one or another of the new “methodologies” derived from the equally fragmented world of the behavioral sciences. As a result, historians have become part of a loose federation of subdisciplines investigating a variety of discrete problems, rather than a community of scholars who agree on what is worth doing and on how the results are to be evaluated.

One suggested cure for fragmentation and incoherence within historical studies is the return to “narrative history.” I take this to mean that historians should resist sacrificing readability and dramatic effect for the apparent precision of quantification and social-scientific analysis. It might also mean that they should focus on the more dynamic aspects of human experience and de-emphasize the search for “structural” continuities over extended periods which has occupied a very influential school of modern social historians.

But if narrative history is to be more than mere storytelling, it must be based on a conviction that the human action being recorded has purpose. Traditional narrative history in the United States and Western Europe gained much of its authority from the liberal or “Whiggish” conviction that studying the past reveals a general progress toward freedom, justice, and morality. People and their actions were presented on the basis of what part they had played in the struggle for liberty and democracy. But events in the twentieth century have, to put it mildly, weakened our faith that history foreshadows the coming of a liberal millennium.

Vivid narrative history can also be inspired by nationalism or ethnic pride—celebration of the heroes and achievements of one’s own country, people, or tribe. I assume that none of the participants in the current debate on the future of history would favor putting scholarship at the service of one of the rival chauvinistic ideologies that currently divide humanity.

Those of us who have not ceased to hope that studying history can yield insights into the human condition and that the past can help us to understand the present and perhaps anticipate the future—assumptions that seem to me essential to the health and survival of the discipline—must confront very seriously the claim that Marxism provides the best available method for seeking historical knowledge. In the work of Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene Genovese, a flexible and sophisticated form of Marxist analysis makes a strong bid to give history the coherence and integrity that it needs to survive its current crisis. If that bid ultimately fails, it will not be because anything more promising is currently being proposed. It will be because the Genoveses will have provoked their critics to create a superior approach.

Fruits of Merchant Capital is a collection of essays, some published previously in different versions and others written expressly for this volume. Most of them are extended commentaries on the work of other historians. The issues that most engage the authors derive from Eugene Genovese’s previous work on slavery in the American South and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese’s specialized knowledge of eighteenth-century France. But the fate of the Old South and l’ancien régime are used as case studies to illustrate general trends in modern world history, and criticism of other scholarship on these subjects serves as the springboard to broad, provocative, and sometimes devastating criticisms of currently fashionable schools of historical interpretation.

Unfortunately, Genovese and Fox-Genovese sometimes get carried away by polemical zeal and make sweeping charges that their opponents will rightly dismiss as unfair. Does it, for example, serve any useful purpose to condemn reputable scholars for covert political motives that may be quite contrary to the ones they publicly avow? At times, especially when “left-liberal” social historians come under fire from the authors, one almost has the sense that a purge of “deviationists” is taking place. But those historians whose left-wing credentials have been impugned will undoubtedly be heard in their own defense. Furthermore, the eloquent concluding chapter of Fruits of Merchant Capital, which calls for a synthesis of bourgeois liberty and socialist equality, will surely provoke some hard-core Marxists to accuse the Genoveses themselves of being liberals under the skin. To enter into these sectarian quarrels would be a waste of time. Fortunately, however, it is not necessary to play the game to political pigeon-holding to confront the important issues of substance and method that these essays raise.

Central to their argument is the authors’ definition or conception of capitalism. Contrary to those who view capitalism as arising naturally and directly from the vast extension of commerce that began at the end of the Middle Ages, Genovese and Fox-Genovese regard the activities of preindustrial “merchant capital”—buying and selling commodities for profit, borrowing and lending money at interest—as “on balance” retarding the growth of capitalism rather than promoting it. The pursuit of profit in a commercial market economy, they argue, is perfectly consistent with the strengthening of feudalism, serfdom, royal absolutism, and other “precapitalist” institutional arrangements. True capitalism could not emerge until an individualistic society was established on the basis of “absolute private property” and a “free market in labor power.” It was thus a social relationship—or more specifically the relationship between propertied employers and propertyless wage laborers—that gave capitalism its defining characteristics and its capacity to transform the world. To take power, or so it would appear from the examples of the French Revolution and the American Civil War, the bourgeoisie had to use violence to overthrow landed aristocracies that were strengthened and stiffened in their resistance to change by merchant-capitalist auxiliaries.

The opposing theory, espoused by many Marxists as well as by liberal economic historians, is that commercial capitalism and the growth of long-distance trade generally acted as a solvent of feudal or precapitalistic economic and social relationships and thus led directly to industrial capitalism based on “free labor.” Fox-Genovese and Genovese persuasively point to many examples of how merchants, bankers, and financiers retarded change in this direction. They use, as detailed case studies, the French financiers who championed a regressive state tobacco monopoly in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the Bordeaux merchants of the 1780s, whose conservatism prevented them from broadening their West Indian trade to include a potentially profitable exchange with the newly independent United States. But their more fundamental point is that the view of merchant capital as a progressive force focuses too narrowly on economic processes and misses the central importance of politics and political struggles in the triumph of industrial capitalism.

A distinguishing mark of the kind of Marxism espoused in Fruits of Merchant Capital is that it repudiates economic determinism and sees ideological and political creativity as central. The direction of historical change was set; inevitably feudalism and other precapitalist “relations of production” were swept away by the rise of free-labor capitalism. But the change did not necessarily occur, as Marxists have often claimed, because a rising bourgeoisie anticipated its material interests would be better served by a new political and social order. Liberal revolutions were made by men and women who chose to argue, fight, and die for reforms that they sincerely believed would increase human welfare and happiness. According to Fox-Genovese, the French physiocrats of the eighteenth century (economic thinkers, such as François Quesnay and Victor de Mirabeau, who promoted the doctrine of laissez-faire) staunchly resisted a political application of their individualistic theories. They thought that they were prescribing for the health of an absolute monarchy when they advocated a free-market economy and absolute ownership of private property. But their ideas entered the stream of thought that led to an extensive democratic revolution. It seems that the general persuasiveness of liberal ideology at a time when l’ancien régime was losing its aura of legitimacy—and not the machinations of a clearly defined and self-conscious bourgeois interest—precipitated the great upheaval of the 1790s and brought France into the capitalist era.

In the Old South, as interpreted by Eugene Genovese, a ruling class chose to fight to death for a way of life that was essentially “precapitalist.” The apparent anomaly of a reactionary landed class arising within the borders of a bourgeois republic and provoking the bloodiest civil war of the nineteenth century has long been a central concern of Genovese’s work. But he has had trouble persuading his fellow historians of the validity of his main premise—that the Old South was genuinely precapitalist and antibourgeois. In his previous works, he has relied mainly on a philosophical and psychological analysis of the master-slave relationship to support his premise. His complex theory assumes that the ownership of human beings engenders a world view radically at odds with the attitudes and values normally possessed by the capitalist employers of “free labor.”

His critics have pointed to the undeniable fact that southern planters were deeply involved in capitalistic market relationships and often behaved like profit-seeking entrepreneurs. In Fruits of Merchant Capital Genovese concedes more to this point of view than he has done in the past. Several times he acknowledges that the South had a “hybrid” system in which capitalist and precapitalist values and patterns of behavior coexisted in an apparently unresolvable state of tension. This interpretation of the Old South as a mixed or ambiguous case comes out most strongly in his fine historiographic essay on the contradictions embedded within the southern legal system.

The notion of a dualistic or hybrid South might tempt some historians to revive the image of the southern planter as “Hamlet,” a view that was fashionable in the 1960s. According to this interpretation, slaveholders went from painful ambivalence to desperate action because they could not choose on any rational basis between the liberalism of their revolutionary forebears and the reactionary implications of their attachment to human bondage.

But this is not where Genovese wants to lead us. At this critical place in his argument, he invokes the merchant-capital thesis to explain the paradoxical features of southern society in a way that permits the planter class to retain its precapitalist character. Slavery, he contends, was one of those retrograde labor systems that the merchant capitalists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries sustained or created in order to produce the trading commodities that they needed to participate in an expanding world market. Another was the revival of serfdom or quasi serfdom in parts of Europe, especially east of the Elbe. (Historians of czarist Russia may be surprised to learn that market pressures accounted for the rise of serfdom there.) Merchant capital thus created enormous obstacles to the free market in labor power that would be required for the triumph of a bourgeois-industrial society.

As the Old South expanded and strengthened its slave-plantation economy, merchant capital continued to play a reinforcing but essentially parasitical role. Genovese points to the “friendly and mutually supportive relations between planters and factors, or, more broadly, between slaveholding and urban commercial and financial interests” as further evidence of “the deeply conservative nature of merchant capital.” (Factors were merchants in the port cities who marketed the crop and advanced credit to planters.) The rampant commercialism of the nineteenth-century cotton kingdom, which other historians have seen as evidence of a capitalistic ethos, was therefore simply another example of merchant capital serving as the handmaiden of reactionary landed classes. Lords of slaves or serfs were happy enough to make money by producing for distant markets, but they nevertheless resisted the “hegemony” of the bourgeoisie and the free labor system.

Such, necessarily simplified, are the main arguments of Fruits of Merchant Capital. But most of the text is not devoted to defending these propositions through the use of factual evidence or concrete examples. (Major exceptions are Elizabeth Fox-Genovese’s detailed and well-documented essays on the Bordeaux merchants, physiocracy, and the French version of the bourgeois ideology of domestic economy—a doctrine that “appropriated the domestic space entirely to women and encouraged them to manage it according to the best principles of bourgeois rationality and thrift.”) For the most part, the persuasiveness of these studies is meant to derive from abstract logical argument, theoretical consistency, and—above all—from a demonstration of the shortcomings of rival schools of interpretation. The principal targets are the “new social history” and the “new economic history.” Not being a practitioner of either of these modes of historical analysis, I must leave it to others to defend their special claims against this heavy attack and correct any false impressions that the Genoveses, in their polemical enthusiasm, may have created. But the larger issue raised by Fruits of Merchant Capital—one that all historians need to confront—is the question of whether it is possible to write coherent history without having a central concern for politics, in the broad sense of who rules whom and how.

It is not necessary to endorse all the specific judgments or even the general theories of these authors to find merit in their indictment of much contemporary historical writing for its tendency to neglect the politics of domination and the crucial influence of elites on subordinate groups. I would agree that the kind of social history that treats the life of a single group or class without sustained attention to how its choices and chances are limited by its relation to other groups and classes is at best fragmentary and at worst misleading. Much contemporary economic history does indeed assume a crude market determinism and thus ignores the political interests and ideologies that give meaning and direction to material processes. It is also apparent that cultural history often fails to relate beliefs, values, and customs to prevailing patterns of dominance and inequality, and that psycho-history is on very weak ground when it reduces collective phenomena to individual psychology. Genovese and Fox-Genovese say little about what currently passes for “political history” in the United States, much of which is either mindlessly empirical or makes politics the expression of relatively static cultural or ethnic commitments that seemingly bear little relation to the great changes that have occurred in our public life.

Fruits of Merchant Capital in effect advocates a return to “general history,” to the study of the past as a broad, integrated experience. And it proposes a nondoctrinaire, supple form of Marxism as the theoretical underpinning for this undertaking. Fox-Genovese and Genovese are such able dialecticians that they can, without apparent inconsistency, absorb and use the theories of Freud as well as those of Marx and Lenin. Furthermore, they reject the outdated nineteenth-century positivism that still clings to much Marxist scholarship. At one point, they approvingly describe both Freudian analysis and “much of the best work in political economy” as “nonscientific interpretative work.” It would seem, therefore, that they are lining up with the humanists among historians against those who propose a dubious analogy with the experimental sciences.

The main purpose of such a book is to raise questions and stimulate debate rather than to resolve all of the issues it addresses. At several points the authors acknowledge the provisional nature of their conclusions and call for further research and interpretation. But there is a dogmatic core to their assumption that all major historical developments are, at bottom, manifestations of class or class struggle. In his writings on the Old South, Eugene Genovese occasionally acknowledges that racism was an element in proslavery commitment and defensiveness; but for most purposes he simply ignores the complexities resulting from the fact that the Old South was a society of racial castes as well as of social classes. The last chapter contains a brief but penetrating discussion of how “slavery in a bourgeois world context required a violent racism not merely as an ideological rationale but as a psychological imperative.” In societies affirming the absolute value of individual liberty and autonomy, the only effective way to justify slavery was to “exclude its victims from the community of man.” Unfortunately, however, Genovese’s dogged insistence that the Old South was thoroughly antibourgeois in its basic outlook prevents him from applying this insight where it would do the most good, to the problem of what role racism actually played in the South’s defense of slavery.

The larger argument concerning the great transformation from precapitalist to capitalist society may also suffer from the a priori limitation of possibilities inherent in the Marxist doctrine that class is always the motor of historical change. Non-Marxists are likely to find that Fruits of Merchant Capital fails to give adequate attention to the independent role of the state in “the rise and expansion of capitalism.” The contention that merchants and bankers served whoever was in power accords with the sensible axiom that the business of businessmen is business, not reform or revolution. But the Genoveses seem to assume that the rulers of premodern Europe were simply reflecting the interests and ideologies of traditional landed classes. Much recent scholarship would support the contrary view that “royal absolutism” was a historical force in its own right, playing in many countries the progressive role of creating centralized authority and thus laying the foundations for the modern nation-state.

The authoritarian monarchs who created powerful European states were not at first willing or able to transform traditional social and economic relationships. But the reforms that finally ended serfdom and other remnants of feudalism in central and eastern Europe in the nineteenth century did not have to wait for the triumph of the bourgeoisie (a class that as yet had little influence in these matters); they came rather from the initiatives of autocratic rulers who had gathered enough strength to overcome the opposition of the landed aristocracies. Whatever the actual consequences of their actions, their primary aim was to strengthen the state rather than to give all power to the capitalists.*

It can also be argued that the abolition of slavery in the United States came when and in the way it did, not because of an irreconcilable class struggle between a southern slavocracy and a northern bourgeoisie, but because the growth and expansion of racial slavery proved to be incompatible with efforts to build a unified nation-state on a liberal, republican foundation.

The view that a Marxian form of class struggle is the single force that accounts for the character of the modern world is therefore likely to be challenged most effectively by historians who take politics even more seriously than do the Genoveses. If the politics of state building and nation making can be shown to be a powerful autonomous force—as I think it can—then Marxism, even in the highly refined form advanced in Fruits of Merchant Capital, will not prove fully adequate to the needs of “general historians.”

Who can observe the contemporary world and not conclude that nationalism has a life of its own and the power to subordinate both capitalist and socialist ideologies to its own ends? Class struggle has of course been important in the formation of modern societies, but at crucial moments its course has been speeded up, slowed down, or even altered by the imperatives of nationalism and state building. An adequate general theory of modern historical development must give more weight to nationalistic sentiments, “reasons of state,” and the independent concerns of governmental elites and bureaucracies than even the most flexible adherents of Marxism have thus far managed to do.

  1. *

    On these issues, see Jerome Blum, The End of the Old Order in Rural Europe (Princeton University Press, 1978), especially pp.371-374.

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