Socialism with slavery?

Gosh, I guess I can learn something from a troll. I was cleaning out the spam trap and noticed a message from a particularly persistent and mostly incoherent troll, and I made the mistake of reading it and learned about someone peculiar.

Why have you never said a word about George Fitzhugh, and his very effective argument that slavery is inherently socialistic?! If Capitalism is the cause of racism and inequality, why not rebut his work?!

I’ve never said a word about Fitzhugh because this is the first I ever heard of him, simple as that. Fitzhugh was an antebellum crank, a fierce defender of slavery, not the kind of guy I tend to look to for information, but sure, I looked at his Wikipedia entry.

George Fitzhugh (November 4, 1806 – July 30, 1881) was an American social theorist who published racial and slavery-based sociological theories in the antebellum era. He argued that the negro “is but a grown up child” who needs the economic and social protections of slavery. Fitzhugh decried capitalism as practiced by the Northern United States and Great Britain as spawning “a war of the rich with the poor, and the poor with one another”, rendering free blacks “far outstripped or outwitted in the chase of free competition.” Slavery, he contended, ensured that blacks would be economically secure and morally civilized. Nonetheless, some historians consider Fitzhugh’s worldview to be fascist in its rejection of liberal values, defense of slavery, and perspectives toward race.

Fascinating. It’s a very strange perspective on socialism, or what Fitzhugh considered socialism, which was a very confused subject in his mind. He doesn’t argue that slavery is socialistic; quite the contrary, he argued that the North was afflicted with an “alarming” degree of socialism, while simultaneously claiming to be a socialist. So to figure this out, I skimmed his book, Cannibals All! or, Slaves Without Masters, looking for some clarity. I didn’t find it. But boy, is that a trip.

What is his argument? First, one part I can agree with: he considers capitalism to be an oppressive system in which elites profit from the labor of workers. He deplores the Northern system which, he argues, puts white workers in a position worse than that of a black slave. This is practically a pamphlet for communism, except that he also deplores communism, and thinks the Northern capitalist economy is implicitly socialistic. I tried to sort that out, and couldn’t, but can at least confirm that he’s anti-capitalist. Which is anti-socialist. I’m lost.

Probably, you are a lawyer, or a merchant, or a doctor, who have made by your business fifty thousand dollars, and retired to live on your capital. But, mark! not to spend your capital. That would be vulgar, disreputable, criminal. That would be, to live by your own labor; for your capital is your amassed labor. That would be, to do as common working men do; for they take the pittance which their employees leave them, to live on. They live by labor; for they exchange the results of their own labor for the products of other people’s labor. It is, no doubt, an honest, vulgar way of living; but not at all a respectable way. The respectable way of living is, to make other people work for you, and to pay them nothing for so doing—and to have no concern about them after their work is done. Hence, white slave-holding is much more respectable than negro slavery—for the master works nearly as hard for the negro, as he for the master. But you, my virtuous, respectable reader, exact three thousand dollars per annum from white labor, (for your income is the product of white labor,) and make not one cent of return in any form. You retain your capital, and never labor, and yet live in luxury on the labor of others. Capital commands labor, as the master does the slave. Neither pays for labor; but the master permits the slave to retain a larger allowance from the proceeds of his own labor, and hence “free labor is cheaper than slave labor.” You, with the command over labor which your capital gives you, are a slave owner—a master, without the obligations of a master. They who work for you, who create your income, are slaves, without the rights of slaves. Slaves without a master! Whilst you were engaged in amassing your capital, in seeking to become independent, you were in the White Slave Trade. To become independent, is to be able to make other people support you, without being obliged to labor for them. Now, what man in society is not seeking to attain this situation? He who attains it, is a slave owner, in the worst sense. He who is in pursuit of it, is engaged in the slave trade. You, reader, belong to the one or other class. The men without property, in free society, are theoretically in a worse condition than slaves. Practically, their condition corresponds with this theory, as history and statistics every where demonstrate. The capitalists, in free society, live in ten times the luxury and show that Southern masters do, because the slaves to capital work harder and cost less, than negro slaves.

It would help if I knew what his definition of socialism was. I searched the book for a clue, and this as close as I could come: Socialism is the same as Abolitionism and 19th century Republicanism, which I guess means that Abe Lincoln was the American version of Chairman Mao. So sorry, Mr Troll, how can you claim that he argues that slavery equals socialism if he thinks that abolition equals slavery? Now I’m even more confused.

We wish to prove that the great movement in society, known under various names, as Communism, Socialism, Abolitionism, Red Republicanism and Black Republicanism, has one common object: the breaking up of all law and government, and the inauguration of anarchy, and that the destruction of the family is one of the means in which they all concur to attain a common end.

At the same time, Fitzhugh claims to be a socialist, and also opposes a free society.

We (for we are a Socialist) agree with Mr. Carlyle, that the action of free society must be reversed. That, instead of relaxing more and more the bonds that bind man to man, you must screw them up more closely. That, instead of no government, you must have more government. And this is eminently true in America, where from the nature of things, as society becomes older and population more dense, more of government will be required. To prevent the attempt at transition, which would only usher in revolution, you must begin to govern more vigorously.

The whole book is an exercise in paradox. He goes on and on about how capitalism is exploitive and awful, and damn those Yankees with their population of white slaves creating an industrial machine, while also telling us that socialism is anarchy and must be stopped, while also announcing that he is a socialist. I’m sorry, Mr Troll, this isn’t an effective argument for anything. These are the rants of a confused old man who retired to a Southern mansion and spent his time firing off incoherent screeds at newspapers.

There is one thing he is consistent on, though: black slavery is a benign institution, and we ought to expand it to allow white laborers to be enslaved, too. They’ll all be happier under the kindly hand of a master.

The negro slaves of the South are the happiest, and, in some sense, the freest people in the world. The children and the aged and infirm work not at all, and yet have all the comforts and necessaries of life provided for them. They enjoy liberty, because they are oppressed neither by care nor labor. The women do little hard work, and are protected from the despotism of their husbands by their masters. The negro men and stout boys work, on the average, in good weather, not more than nine hours a day. The balance of their time is spent in perfect abandon. Besides, they have their Sabbaths and holidays. White men, with so much of license and liberty, would die of ennui; but negroes luxuriate in corporeal and mental repose. With their faces upturned to the sun, they can sleep at any hour; and quiet sleep is the greatest of human enjoyments. “Blessed be the man who invented sleep.” ‘Tis happiness in itself—and results from contentment with the present, and confident assurance of the future. We do not know whether free laborers ever sleep. They are fools to do so; for, whilst they sleep, the wily and watchful capitalist is devising means to ensnare and exploitate them. The free laborer must work or starve. He is more of a slave than the negro, because he works longer and harder for less allowance than the slave, and has no holiday, because the cares of life with him begin when its labors end. He has no liberty, and not a single right. We know, ’tis often said, air and water, are common property, which all have equal right to participate and enjoy; but this is utterly false. The appropriation of the lands carries with it the appropriation of all on or above the lands, usque ad cœlum, aut ad inferos. A man cannot breathe the air, without a place to breathe it from, and all places are appropriated. All water is private property “to the middle of the stream,” except the ocean, and that is not fit to drink.

Uh, yeah. I think he has built his twisty sociological edifice atop some extraordinarily fallacious premises.

Still, he was a fascinating hate-monger and kook, but not someone to look to for an insightful analysis of 19th century American society…or any society for that matter. I wouldn’t even recognize him as a socialist, since he’s not arguing for any kind of placement of any degree of ownership in the means of production to workers — he wants an authoritarian government of hereditary elites who strip all benefit from the workers’ labors and place it in the hands of hypothetically benign slave-owners. Far from being an effective argument that slavery is inherently socialistic, he’s really just a racist arguing that slavery is good.

Also, he later changed his mind.

He reversed course on capitalism’s pernicious effects, arguing that “the monopoly of property, or capital, by the few” was “the only means of begetting, sustaining and advancing civilization.”

Browsing his book, I recognize that what he really is is a predecessor to the Neo-Reactionary Movement, or the Dark Enlightenment, that libertarian wet dream of replacing the American government with an absolute monarchy in which the rich have total control. I don’t think I need to waste time any further with that horrible racist, Mr Troll: I don’t see anything coherent or true that I need to rebut.


  1. kathleenzielinski says

    Ayn Rand made the same argument. She said socialism was the practice of treating people as members of a group rather than as individuals. Therefore, according to her, racism was a form of socialism since it treats people as members of their racial group rather than individuals. And not being racist is a form of capitalism since each individual is judged based on merit.

    I’m not aware of anyone else who defines socialism that way.

  2. says

    It might make some sense if slavery were voluntary, in which case, the entire economics of the practice fall apart.

    Coming up with strawman “socialism”s is a popular pastime. Even Hayek did it, when he claimed that socialism led to slavery, down a slippery slope. In order to make that argument, he had to characterize socialism with such distortions that it’s basically capitalism that he’s complaining about.

  3. Snidely W says

    Nice summary PZ. Thanks.
    It seems that there are valid reasons for not having heard of the guy.

    The respectable way of living is, to make other people work for you, and to pay them nothing for so doing—and to have no concern about them after their work is done.

    Good grief.

  4. joel says

    Apparently the confusion here is that Fitzhugh was a libertarian long before anyone – even him – was aware of such a movement. After all, the logical endpoint of libertarianism is slavery.

  5. stroppy says

    Yeah, and they say Nazis are Socialists and North Korea is democratic, because words can mean whatever you want if you have an agenda, are full of bollocks, and are a gaslighting psychopath.

  6. chrislawson says


    I read that as Fitzhugh decrying what society thinks considers “the respectable way” rather than that he himself respects it. Of course, he’s so damn incoherent that he could mean almost anything from one sentence to the next.

  7. PaulBC says

    His distinction between literal slave-holding and living off return on capital is incoherent. Most investors at the time would have also been earning gains from the work of slaves through the cotton trade, etc. More direct slaveholders could have retired into the position of “gentleman farmer” where most of the work was done by underlings, paid out of the surplus of a large enough plantation.

    I am not even sure what he’s trying to say here.

    Hence, white slave-holding is much more respectable than negro slavery—for the master works nearly as hard for the negro, as he for the master.

    Uh, I doubt it. You might resolve this issue by seeing who is more interested in trading places in this relationship.

    Anyway, you can blather on about socialism is capitalism, but the most offensive part of his thinking is the most obvious: racial essentialism. He believes that Africans are a distinct group of people incapable of being the equals of Europeans, which is obviously a load of hateful nonsense.

  8. PaulBC says

    Fitzhugh’s statement carries echoes of my least favorite quote by Thoreau in Walden, and I admire Thoreau for the most part.

    I sometimes wonder that we can be so frivolous, I may almost say, as to attend to the gross but somewhat foreign form of servitude called Negro Slavery, there are so many keen and subtle masters that enslave both north and south. It is hard to have a southern overseer; it is worse to have a northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave-driver of yourself.

    I call shenanigans, though some may invoke poetic license.

    You can have a crappy job or even be a wage slave, burdened with debt. You can push yourself hard and make yourself miserable with stress.

    But… sorry Henry, you’ve got to know better than that. Having the legal status of livestock, no rights, and in constant threat of being bought and sold, or summarily executed is far worse than the “keen and subtle masters” we all endure in this vale of “quiet desperation.”

  9. chrislawson says


    Yep. It’s hardly a great rebuttal of socialism to dig up examples of people who were socialist and also racist. Every philosophical movement has proponents who held some kind of regressive view.

    Which means this argument would overturn all philosophies including those of the original author…if this was put forward as a genuine argument. Which if course it wasn’t. It was just trolling. “Here’s this historically obscure person who advocated an incoherent version of X, and was also an incoherent advocate of Y. Checkmate X-ists!”

  10. says

    Interesting. While following up on possible Irish ancestors in the USA I came across Edmund Strother Dargan, a member of the Confederate Congress who made a similarly passionate speech in support of slavery. My American history is rather shaky but apparently this was at a gathering of the southern states which led to their secession from the Union. He was of the view that if salves were freed they wouldn’t be capable of looking after or feeding themselves and would cause problems for themselves and everyone else. He concluded that it would be more compassionate to keep them as slaves. He was also a rather irascible person who took exception to an insult from another congressman who he attacked on the floor of congress with a knife.

  11. cartomancer says

    There was a generally held view among 19th Century US critics of capitalism that slavery and wage labour under capitalism were very similar institutions, differing largely in that wage labour was temporary whereas slavery as practised in the US was permanent. Indeed, Marx’s own view was that capitalism differed from slave and feudal systems only in the way the oppressive class structure was organized (employer-employee, rather than master-slave or lord-serf), rather than necessarily in the degree of oppression involved.

    As for Socialism and Communism, as PZ notes, both are terms with a long and varied history, and a very wide range of uses, and one has to give a specific definition of one’s own before one can use them with any precision.

  12. PaulBC says


    Indeed, Marx’s own view was that capitalism differed from slave and feudal systems only in the way the oppressive class structure was organized (employer-employee, rather than master-slave or lord-serf), rather than necessarily in the degree of oppression involved.

    Right. And that sounds like bullshit to me.

    Imagine on the one hand you’re a rural Chinese laborer who voluntarily leaves the countryside and moves to a city where you spend 16 hour days applying toxic glue to attach soles to running shoes. (I believe this was at least a pretty common occurrence in 80s and 90s.) It’s a miserable existence and reveals the dirty underside of global capitalism. But you may keep doing it and may send more money back to your family than you could possibly make by farming. Technically you could quit. You may also feel stuck. You may suffer physical consequences as well from this terrible job and die young.

    Now imagine on the other hand, you’re living in a rural African village. It’s a low tech life, but you get by and have the same concerns as most human beings have always had: your work, your family, your place in the community (and pardon me but I’m sure I’m leaning heavily on a 9th grade reading of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in constructing this mental image). One day, some people come and kidnap you. They put you into the hold of a boat. You witness others suffering and dying around you. Somehow you live. After that, you are treated like a farm animal and have no longer even the illusion of going back to your old life or enjoying any other life.

    I mean, no. Just no. Only an asshole could draw an equivalence between these two, admittedly horrifying situations. Chattel slavery is the absolute worst.

    (And now I’ll shut up. Trying hard to hold back on my much-loathed long posts.)

  13. KG says

    There was a generally held view among 19th Century US critics of capitalism that slavery and wage labour under capitalism were very similar institutions, differing largely in that wage labour was temporary whereas slavery as practised in the US was permanent. Indeed, Marx’s own view was that capitalism differed from slave and feudal systems only in the way the oppressive class structure was organized (employer-employee, rather than master-slave or lord-serf), rather than necessarily in the degree of oppression involved.

    Marx seems to have overlooked that slavery was a central feature of 19th century (and earlier) capitalism*, which had grown enormously since 1500, not a hangover from some earlier era. The waged worker of 19th century capitalism, like the majority of those today, was indeed grossly exploited and oppressed, but still, there was no queue of “wage slaves” wishing to become actual slaves, subject to the whip, branding, mutilation, rape, and being sold away from their family at the owner’s whim without any legal or customary protection whatever – and in practice, subject to death at their whim too.

    I’m currently reading Alan Taylor’s American Colonies, a brilliant study of the European (primarily British) colonization of North America and the Caribbean up to the late 18th century. The slave production of sugar, tobacco and other tropical products was a key part of the development of capitalism in Europe and the colonies themselves – New England was as dependent on it as areas further south, as most of its exports (food, textiles, lumber…) went to the West Indies to maintain the slave system there. Manufacturing industry in Britain grew rapidly through exports to the colonies and Africa (some 300,000 guns annually to West Africa by 1800), while the addictive products (sugar, tobacco, rum) drew workers into the factory system. Sugar production in particular was a complex agro-industrial system, requiring (for the time) highly sophisticated machinery and processing.

    *Of course it still exists in 21st century capitalism, but is less economically important.

  14. KG says

    The quote @14 is from consciousness razor@12.

    Just one point: European slave traders didn’t kidnap the slaves themselves: they bought them from local chiefs and traders, often with guns – to wage wars to capture more slaves. There had long been a small-scale trade in slaves from West Africa north to Muslim states, but European slave traders and the goods they could supply increased its scale enormously, and any local group that didn’t buy guns and join the trade itself became a source of slaves.

  15. says

    @#11, garydargan

    There’s a great primary source to refute that sort of claim (that slaves wouldn’t be able to take care of themselves): a letter from a former slave, one Jourdon Anderson, to his former master.

    I have read that the master went bankrupt because he couldn’t run his farm without slave labor, and that his descendants even now blame Jourdon Anderson for the family’s economic ruin, for being so ungrateful as to not come back and voluntarily be a slave again.

  16. Erp says

    It was a common belief even among anti-slavery people that Blacks were by nature less competent. It did lead to some odd situations such as the case of Caster Hanway, a white man, who was an onlooker when a group of Blacks in 1851 successfully fought off a slave recapturing party in Christiana, Pennsylvania. The US government was so convinced that no Black could have been the leader that among those arrested (Hanway and a few other Whites plus a large number of local Blacks) that it decided Hanway must have been the leader and so tried him first. The result was a quick acquittal (partly because he was tried for treason rather than for violating the Fugitive Slave Act; he was likely guilty of the latter for refusing to aid the slave recapturing party) much to the fury of many slave supporters. The actual leader, an escaped slave named William Parker who had been very much a local leader in resisting slave raiders, had fled north along with many of the actual participants to Canada almost immediately after the fight.

  17. unclefrogy says

    that “argument” is so contradictory I have a hard time making any sense out of it other then I thoroughly dislike it .
    There is something to the comparison of capital ism’s wage slavery and actual chattel slavery as well as some very substantial noted differences.
    from the position of 19th century the two systems are very similar and given the opportunity would be today. One of the main things that differentiate them is wag slavery is cheaper since there is little inbuilt incentive in practice for the employer the capitalist to give a crap about anything other then how cheaply he can get the labor he needs. whether it is a living wage or not is no concern if you doubt that look no further the amazon, uber and the fast food industry no need to get abstract about it.
    The difference we see in this stage of development of economies is the contribution that voluntary associations of workers have made to the practice and organization of work and the economy.
    capitalism or society can not function for the benefit of all the society without the participation of all of the people that make it up. All the benefits of capitalism touted to the masses as propaganda were not delivered by the benevolent capitalist but by vigorous advocacy and struggle of the workers as unionists and voters in democratic organizations all with the flaws that come with any human endeavor.

    when reading I kept hearing fascist nazi roots I guess it is not a very 20th century idea after all

  18. Pierce R. Butler says

    KG @ # 14: Sugar production in particular was a complex agro-industrial system, requiring (for the time) highly sophisticated machinery and processing.

    I’ve run into references to that in context of recent readings in early US history. From various sources, I’ve learned that sugar processing involved the first consistent use of conveyor belts, and that the cane harvesting crews were kept on a steady pace by use of drummers. Sugar was so profitable that France made more money from the island of Guadalupe than from all of Canada; possibly the same applied to England’s Caribbean holdings compared to the 13 mainland colonies.

  19. cartomancer says

    The thing about Marx’s analysis was that it didn’t just encompass the rather peculiar form of slavery that existed in the US, but other forms throughout history as well. The US form of slavery was one of the very worst to have existed. There have been (and continue to be) other forms with rather different kinds and degrees of oppression inherent in them. Ancient Roman slavery, for instance, varied tremendously in how oppressive it was (and was usually only a 10-20 year deal, after which you became integrated into Roman society and your children were full citizens).

    Likewise capitalism. Not all forms of capitalism are as explotative and oppressive. Even US capitalism was much milder and less exploitative in the 50s and 60s.

    So there most certainly are instances where slavery would be preferable to capitalist exploitation. Cicero’s slave amanuensis Tiro had a far better life than the child workers in Dickensian match factories.

  20. PaulBC says


    So there most certainly are instances where slavery would be preferable to capitalist exploitation. Cicero’s slave amanuensis Tiro had a far better life than the child workers in Dickensian match factories.

    Fair enough. But Fitzhugh was referring specifically to the “peculiar institution”. That was a form of slavery in which people of African descent were deprived of human rights, treated as property, and subject to a body of pseudoscience claiming them to be essentially inferior, which I doubt (though I know very little) was true of Roman slavery.

  21. Erp says

    cartomancer@21 actually the vast majority of Roman slaves were unlikely to be freed. Notably those working as agricultural laborers or in the mines had almost no chance of freedom. Household slaves such as Tiro with valuable skills were the most likely to be freed and if their former owner was a Roman citizen would themselves become Roman citizens (this was a big difference from American slavery). They would remain in a client relationship to their patron, their former owner, though that could be quite lucrative. Cicero as an important Senator likely owned thousands of slaves to work his estates. The worst of Roman slavery was likely as bad as the worst of American slavery though the prospects for a few Roman slaves was far better than anything an American slave could hope for (at least from within the system).

  22. KG says


    Of course you can find individual instances such as Tiro vs a Victorian child match worker, but that’s not a serious argument any more than the fact that Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May became PM shows that women have more political power than men in the UK. Nor does it, or anything else you say, touch on my central point – that Marx (with his rather schematic view of history – “primitive communism” to “slave societies” to “feudalism” to “capitalism”, with the “Asiatic mode of production” off to the side somewhere), seems to have missed the central role slavery played in the development of capitalism, particularly in the Dutch Republic, the British Empire and the USA.

  23. snarkrates says

    Cartomancer: “So there most certainly are instances where slavery would be preferable to capitalist exploitation. Cicero’s slave amanuensis Tiro had a far better life than the child workers in Dickensian match factories.”

    The plural of anecdote is not data.

  24. pacal says

    Actually George Fitzhugh ideas have had a fascinating intellectual history since his death. Eugene Genovese, an alleged “Marxist” who really had problem with modern Capitalism. He wrote a fascinating book about pro-slavery thought in the antebellum era called The World the Slaveholders Made much of which was devoted to the thought of George Fitzhugh. Genovese’s dislike of Capitalism eventually led him to sympathize with much of Fitzhugh’s thought, but not the racism, on the grounds that it was anti-Capitalist and a challenge to conventional Bourgeois thought. He also took the alleged paternalistic ideology of the slave holders seriously.

    Because this ideology challenged, in his mind, the evil hegomony of Capitalism, which Genovese to the end despised. Genoese ended up in the last years of his life basically to a degree romaticizing the pre-Civil War South.

    It turns out that all the guff about Slaveholders challenging Capitalism is so much nonsense. It appears that the picture of slaveholders. Has agrarian Capitalists, well integrated into the, then contemporary Capitalist system is in fact correct.

    So that Geonovese’s delusion that they in some sense wee anti-Capitalist under attack by voracious predatory Capitalism is in fact delusional. The alleged pre or anti-Capitalist ideology of the Slaveholders was in fact either a ideological ymask hiding Capitalistic practice and / or a creation of pre and post Civil War apologists for the system. Genoese seems to have to some extent bought the kook aid, mainly because, it seems, his dislike of Capitalism.

    Sometimes underneath the Revolutionary is Romantic Reactionary to some extent.