Archive | July 28, 2009

Rothbard on Aptheker on Slavery

At the Mises Institute today I was looking through the library and noticed Murray Rothbard’s copy of American Negro Slave Revolts, the 1943 study by Marxist historian Herbert Aptheker. One passage stood out because Rothbard had marked it with heavy lightning-bolt squiggles and marginal comments like “Right,” “Good,” “Great.”

Aptheker, discussing the claim that “cruelty was characteristic of the institution of American Negro slavery,” writes:

Many, perhaps most, writers on this subject have denied this and assert, on the contrary, that “kindliness [was] the rule” under the system. … A recent repetition of this idea urges the reader to bear in mind that “owners of slaves were hardly likely to be cruel or careless with expensive pieces of their own property,” just as most people do not abuse their horses or automobiles.

Aptheker goes on to provide ample empirical evidence to the contrary; but first he attacks the theoretical argument, and this is the section that excited Rothbard’s enthusiastic approval:

[T]he fatal error in the above proposition is the assumption that one may accurately compare any two pieces of property, even if they be so far apart and so distinct as is a horse from a human being.

Aptheker and RothbardThere are, however, fundamental differences. Basic is the reasoning faculty which leads men, unlike automobiles, to compare, plan, hope, yearn, desire, hate, fear, which leads them to seek pleasure and shun pain, to spin dreams and build philosophies and struggle and gladly die for them. Human beings, in fine, or, at least, many human beings, do possess the glorious urge to improve themselves and their environment. And people who are beaten, branded, sold, degraded, denied a thousand and one privileges they see enjoyed by others will be discontented, and will plan, or at least, think of bettering their lot.

This was the slaveholders’ nightmare. This it was that led them to erect theologic, economic, social and ethnologic justifications for their system, that led them to build a most elaborate machine of physical repression and terrorization. For, and here was another crucial difference, most slaves were owned as investments, not as ornaments or commodities of consumption, as are most automobiles. Slaves were instruments of production, were means by which men who owned land were able to produce tobacco and rice and sugar and cotton to be sold and to return them a profit. Their existence had no meaning other than this for the employers. Profit must be gotten from these workers – whom the bosses owned – no matter what blood and sweat and tears this entailed, and the more profit the better.

When one combines the differences, then, he finds the slaves to have been not inanimate ornaments or instruments of pleasure, but thinking, living commercial investments, rational machines of production. It may be said, therefore, that cruelty was an innate, inextricable part of American Negro slavery, for these peculiar machines, possessed of the unique quality of human beings – reason – had to be maltreated, had to be made to suffer physical cruelty, had to be chained and lashed and beaten into producing for a profit. The latter was the reason for their existence and incorrigibility, protest, disobedience, discontent, rebelliousness were bad in themselves, and disastrous as examples. Instead of the slave’s value preventing cruelty, it was exactly because of that value, and that greater value he could produce – when forced – that cruelty existed. (pp. 132-133)

It occurs to me this Aptheker-Rothbard argument also raises a problem for Hans Hoppe’s contention that monarchs can be expected to be relatively benign because they take the attitude of private ownership toward the realms they rule.

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