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George Fitzhugh, the Honest Socialist

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Tags SocialismU.S. History

11/04/2017

In the mid-nineteenth century debates over the virtues and evils of slavery, the arguments from the pro-slavery southerners evolved from a claim that slavery was a “necessary evil” to arguments that it was a “positive moral good.” A large part of this evolution in perspective was a reaction to the growing moral antipathy toward slavery by the North, breeding the need — from the southern perspective — to find a defense of slavery that they could counter on moral grounds.

But George Fitzhugh’s defense of slavery was unique. He accepted the paternalist argument that the southerners were increasingly adopting — specifically, that slavery bettered the position of the slave — but he rejected the racial division that they necessarily included in their argument. In his infamous 1954 publication, Sociology of the South, he wrote:

We abhor the doctrine of the “Types of Mankind;” first, because it is at war with scripture, which teaches us that the whole human race is descended from a common parentage; and, secondly, because it encourages and incites brutal masters to treat negroes, not as weak, ignorant and dependent brethren, but as wicked beasts, without the pale of humanity.

True to the racist views of the day, Fitzhugh did believe that blacks were “weak, ignorant and dependent” on the superior class of whites, but his racism was part of a class analysis common to socialists. In other words, the benefits that he believed blacks gained from slavery should also be applied to poor, less capable whites.

Fitzhugh was concerned with the labor questions that were becoming a more prominent concern in European and US political discourse, and like many people, he believed socialism to be the solution to labor concerns. Slavery was good, Fitzhugh made clear, because “slavery is a form, and the very best form, of socialism.” 

Fitzhugh, unlike others on both sides of the slavery debate, offered no pretended love for liberty. “The dissociation of labor and disintegration of society,” he wrote, “which liberty and free competition occasion, is especially injurious to the poorer class.” The burdens of the poor, in Fitzhugh’s eyes, were imposed by a system of free trade, in which “the poor man is burdened with the care of finding a home, and procuring employment, and attending to all domestic wants and concerns.” The South held the solution for the poor, white and black alike: “Slavery relieves our slaves of these cares altogether.”

Like many anti-socialists of then and now, Fitzhugh drew the connection between a command economy and a slave plantation, but instead of seeing both as evil, he considered both to be good:

The association of labor properly carried out under a common head or ruler, would render labor more efficient, relieve the laborer of many of the cares of household affairs, and protect and support him in sickness and old age, besides preventing the too great reduction of wages by redundancy of labor and free competition. Slavery attains all these results. What else will?

Fitzhugh knew that slavery was the antithesis of capitalism, and he directly attacked the ideas of a free market system in his defense of slavery. “The ink was hardly dry with which Adam Smith wrote his Wealth of Nations, lauding the benign influences of a free society” Fitzhugh argued, “ere the hunger and want and nakedness of that society engendered a revolutionary explosion that shook the world to its centre.” Assuming, as he seems to, that the failures of free trade are self-evident, he cites the many revolutions of Europe from only a few years prior as evidence that slavery is what the revolutionaries wanted. He points to the “starving artisans and laborers and fish-women and needle-women of Paris,” the “serfs of Russia” and the Ukraine who “fought for lares and penates, their homes, their country, and their God” because “they had been set free to starve, without a place to rest their dying heads or to inter their dead bodies.”

After noting the failure of the Paris Commune — a failure that he implies is due to the lack of central direction in the form of a regal authority — he points out that “Louis Napoleon is made Emperor,” who he praises for understanding “the disease of society,” and for having “nerve enough for any surgical operation that may be required to cure it.”

“He is a socialist” Fitzhugh writes of Louis Napoleon, “and socialism is the new fashionable name of slavery.”

“His first step in socialism,” Fitzhugh continues his laudations, “was to take the money of the rich to buy wheat for all,” an act that was “well-timed and just.” Napoleon “is now building houses on the social plan for working men, and his Queen is providing nurseries and nurses for the children of the working women, just as we Southerners do for our negro women and children.”

“It is a great economy,” Fitzhugh declares, and “Fourier suggested it long after Southerners had practiced it.”

In a frank and honest summation of his views, Fitzhugh wrote:

Socialism proposes to do away with free competition; to afford protection and support at all times to the laboring class; to bring about, at least, a qualified community or property, and to associate labor. All these purposes, slavery fully and perfectly attains.

In works of history, Fitzhugh is noted as an interesting outlier among the pro-slavery adherents. Historians point out that he, uniquely, posits that slavery is a moral good and — contrary to other southerners — this moral good should beneficently be extended to whites as well as blacks. Fitzhugh, to most historians, is unique in the manner in which he defends slavery.

But most historians dance around or outright omit Fitzhugh’s very logical reasoning behind his belief: socialism and slavery are one and the same; they are logically inseparable. This argument is hardly unique, and it has been made by advocates of the free market since the beginnings of socialist movements. The only thing unique about Fitzhugh, was that he erroneously believed socialism — and by logical extension, slavery — to be a moral and practical good. One might say that Fitzhugh, in acknowledging that slavery and socialism were logically identically, was the only truly honest socialist.

Chris Calton is a 2018 Mises Institute Research Fellow and an economic historian. He is writer and host of the Historical Controversies podcast.

See also his YouTube channel here.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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