Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Marx of the Master Class.

"It would be well for those interested to reflect whether there now exists, or ever has existed, a wealthy and civilized community in which one portion did not live on the labor of another; and whether the form in which slavery exists in the South is not but one modification of this universal condition… Let those who are interested remember that labor is the only source of wealth, and how small a portion of it, in all old and civilized countries, even the best governed, is left to those by whose labor wealth is created." (John C. Calhoun, here)

Reading outside your usual area of interest is often a loss of time. Sometimes, however, it can be extremely rewarding. That was the case with Richard Hofstadter's 1948 biographical essay on John C. Calhoun (1782 - 1850) -- whose title opens this post.


A wealthy South Carolina slave-holding planter by birth, and a lawyer by training, Calhoun got involved with politics early, eventually holding major political offices, including the seventh Vice Presidency of the U.S.

John C. Calhoun, 1849. [A]
Given his personal background, young Calhoun gravitated quite naturally to the Democratic Party (at the time committed to a Jeffersonian concept of agrarian society, popular in the South), although initially sharing ground with their opposition, the Whig Party (classical liberalism and protectionism, more palatable to Northern tastes). Against what was common among other planters, Calhoun started as a nationalist, favoring a strong federal government and import tariffs (both unpopular in the South).

From 1830 on, and reflecting the increasingly divergent interests of slaveholding South and capitalist North, Calhoun distanced himself from his nationalist, federalist and protectionist past and fully embraced the Southern planters' cause. Although interesting in itself, neither Calhoun the statesman, nor the somewhat surprisingly dedicated family man, are the focus of this post and perhaps his daguerreotype provides the more suggestive and vivid description of the statesman.


As his initial sympathy for the North waned, Calhoun the thinker grew increasingly critical of the capitalistic North. This was not an exclusively American phenomenon. Across the Atlantic, Thomas Carlyle (1795 - 1881) is another example of reaction against the ascendant bourgeoisie.

Several things, however, distinguished Calhoun's thought from that of other anti-capitalist reactionaries. Carlyle argued for the English landed aristocracy's moral superiority (exposing himself to accusations of hypocrisy and racism). Calhoun did not follow that route.

Defiantly admitting the exploitative character of the Southern agrarian society, Calhoun observed that the capitalistic North was every bit as exploitative. However, by pretending otherwise -- as liberals/Whigs are wont to do -- in addition to being exploitative, capitalist society was also self-deceiving, hypocritical, and cowardly.

On February 4, 1836, then senator Calhoun (MA) delivered a report entitled "Incendiary Publications", before the U.S. Senate. In that report (a fragment of which opens this post), Calhoun, in ruthlessly lucid terms -- that would sound familiar to whoever read The Communist Manifesto -- approaches the phenomenon of exploitation, manifested throughout history.

Compare Calhoun's writing to the opening lines from the Manifesto:
"The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.
"Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes". (See here)
Slavery in the South -- Calhoun understood -- is but one instance of this universal condition, necessary for the existence of any wealthy and civilized community: one portion of the community lives on the labour of another. It is this stolen ease that allows civilization's great achievements (a subject that Nietzsche would retake decades later).

That wasn't the only opportunity Calhoun broached that subject, either, nor was him the only commentator arguing along those lines: James H. Hammond and the depraved George Fitzhugh in some ways went further than him, proposing the extension of slavery to white Americans.


But there are more differences. While Carlyle's ideal society was one dominated by the landed aristocracy, Calhoun recognized that the ground gained by the American bourgeoisie could not be regained. Foreshadowing Nietzsche, Calhoun envisaged an openly anti-democratic "final solution" to the unrest by slaves/abolitionists and workers/socialists (Nietzsche's "rabble"): a mutually beneficial alliance by Southern planters and Northern industrialists.

Hofstadter put it thus:
"Calhoun had an ingenious solution for the sectional problem [i.e. North vs South antagonism]: in return for the South's services as a balance wheel against labor agitation, the solid elements in the North should join her in a common front against all agitation of the slavery issue." 

While Calhoun may have never used the term, he understood as well as Marx and Engels did that "the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles". His fear was that by struggling among themselves, capitalists and slave-owners were playing into the hands of workers and slaves.


Calhoun died in 1850. To some extent, his nightmarish vision for America died in 1861, with the start of the American Civil War.


While Calhoun ultimately failed as a statesman -- and I, for one, am grateful for that -- the task he imposed himself was too ambitious: no man could have stopped the decline of the slaveholding and agrarian Southern ersatz aristocracy, nor -- paraphrasing the Manifesto -- American society from "more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other -- bourgeoisie and proletariat".

However, one must credit Calhoun with uncanny prescience, as Hofstadter did:
"Calhoun's analysis of American political tensions certainly ranks among the most impressive intellectual achievements of American statesmen. Far in advance of the event, he forecast an alliance between Northern conservatives and Southern reactionaries, which has become one of the most formidable aspects of American politics. The South, its caste system essentially intact, has proved to be for an entire century [remember: this essay was published in 1948!] more resistant to change than the North, its influence steadily exerted to retard serious reform and to curb the power of Northern labor."
For his perspicacity -- if definitely not his intentions -- Calhoun earned the title of "Marx of the Master Class" Hofstadter gave him.

What a contrast with the mediocrity so common among our pathetic, so-called "progressive", "liberal" intellectuals and their discount "idealism".

Hofstadter's essay "John C. Calhoun: The Marx of the Master Class" is a must-read.

Image Credits:
[A] John C Calhoun, 1849, by Mathew Brady. Image in the public domain due to age. Source: Wikipedia.

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