One of the topics I’ve long been interested in is the traffic between the European right and the slaveholding South in the US. We know a fair amount, now, about the relationship between the abolitionist movement in the US and the European left, including Marx, but less about the impact that slavery and its defense had on the European right.
What first piqued my interest in this issue was reading Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche talks a lot about slavery in his work, and it’s long been the conventional wisdom that his references here are metaphorical and philosophical rather than contemporary and literal. I’ve had my doubts about that, as I’ve written.
One can hear in the opening passages of “The Greek State” the pounding march not only of European workers on the move but also of black slaves in revolt. Hegel was brooding on Haiti while he worked out the master-slave dialectic in The Phenomenology of Spirit. Though generations of scholars have told us otherwise, perhaps Nietzsche had a similar engagement in mind when he wrote, “Even if it were true that the Greeks were ruined because they kept slaves, the opposite is even more certain, that we will be destroyed because we fail to keep slaves.”
What theorist, after all, has ever pressed so urgently — not just in this essay but in later works as well — the claim that “slavery belongs to the essence of a culture”? What theorist ever had to? Before the eighteenth century, bonded labor was an accepted fact. Now it was the subject of a roiling debate, provoking revolutions and emancipations throughout the world.
Serfdom had been eliminated in Russia only a decade before — and in some German states, only a generation before Nietzsche’s birth in 1844 — while Brazil would soon become the last state in the Americas to abolish slavery. An edifice of the ages had been brought down by a mere century’s vibrations; is it so implausible that Nietzsche, attuned to the vectors and velocity of decay as he was, would pause to record the earthquake and insist on taking the full measure of its effects?
There’s also Nietzsche’s tantalizing reference in his notebooks to Harriet Beecher Stowe as the inheritor, along with Rousseau and the French Revolution, of Christianity:
The French Revolution as the continuation of Christianity. Rousseau is the seducer: he again unfetters woman who is henceforth represented in an even more interesting manner — as suffering. Then the slaves and Mrs. Beecher-Stowe. Then the poor and the workers.
According to my friend Harrison Fluss, Domenico Losurdo’s long anticipated biography of Nietzsche, which came out in Italian years ago and is about to appear, finally, in English, discusses this and related passages (which don’t get much treatment in the literature), suggesting that Nietzsche may have been more aware of the question of slavery on this side of the Atlantic than we think.
In any event, I got a book in the mail a few weeks ago that begins to deal with the larger issue of the slaveholding South and the European right: Don Doyle’s The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War. It’s about a much larger topic, as the title suggests, and I haven’t really dived into it yet, but I’ve read one chapter and the intro and have already learned some fascinating things.
First, slaveholder and race theorist Josiah Nott, whose writing I discuss in The Reactionary Mind, commissioned an English translation (for the US) of Gobineau’s Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines, one of the main texts in Europe’s developing racial ideology. (Gobineau also had an extensive correspondence with Tocqueville, who appointed the younger man to a position in the Foreign Ministry while he was serving as foreign minister).
Nott is one of the more fascinating writers among the slaveholding South, for the way he treats African Americans versus other groups in his Instincts of Races makes clear that he believes only African Americans are creatures of their physical estate, that only they cannot rise above their biological destiny, which is what he defines a race to be in the first place.
In other words, read carefully, Instincts of Races suggests that, properly speaking, there is only one race in America: African Americans. If we keep in mind the dictum that there are in fact no races, only racism, Nott’s theory demonstrates quite well how the idea of race in the US was meant to serve the cause of racialized slavery.
Second, Doyle opens with a fascinating discussion of the efforts of the North and South to convince the world that their cause was the one that ought to be supported. What’s especially interesting about Doyle’s argument is how much these efforts look like what will later be called the “cultural Cold War,” that is, the conscription of writers, artists, and intellectuals throughout the world on behalf of the cause of the United States against international communism and the Soviet Union.
As Doyle points out, both sides, but especially the North, quickly learned that outright propaganda was not particularly effective at generating international support. While neither side was above hiring journalists and editors to plant stories or circulate rumors, the North especially understood that “the most effective” agents for their cause “were not hired pens but volunteers who wrote and spoke with conviction and appealed to the fundamental values, ideals, prejudices, and fears of their people in their own idiom.”
It’s an inexact analogy — we’re not talking about showcasing modernist art as an emblem of the Free World — but it anticipates some of the principles that underlay the CIA’s secret funding of magazines like Encounter.
Third, it’s clear that early on the North faced a major legitimation problem. The South had framed its appeal to the world in liberal terms: they stood for free trade and national self-determination, while the North was an imperial conqueror, set on protecting its markets from Europe and preventing the southern (white) people from governing themselves.
The North, by contrast, had initially framed its position, at least internationally, in excessively legalistic terms. The promise of Lincoln, in his First Inaugural, not to interfere with slavery wherever it existed in the South, harmed the Northern position. Though crafted by Lincoln and Seward as a sop, in part, to international opinion, Doyle writes,
it cost them dearly, and over the next four years, the Union’s greatest challenge overseas would be to retrieve the valuable moral capital that had been sacrificed to this early argument for a causeless rebellion.
But republicans, radicals, and revolutionaries in Europe pushed the argument, publicly, that the future of liberty everywhere hinged on the success of the northern cause. These radicals helped to make the cause of the North the “last best hope of earth,” not just in the US but throughout the world. While the slaves themselves as well as radicals and Republicans in the US obviously were critical to that shift, Doyle claims that the international left played an important role as well.
Learning from the transatlantic dialogue on the American question, Union advocates put aside their legalistic arguments against secession and fashioned an appeal to ideals of human equality and liberty against those of aristocracy.
While it’s too early for me to say anything about this definitively, Doyle’s introduction immediately made me think of Mary Dudziak’s argument in Cold War Civil Rights. There, Dudziak shows that a critical factor in moving American jurisprudence and policy in the 1950s was the Cold War, specifically the competition with the Soviet Union over the hearts and minds of the decolonizing world.
While anticommunism often helped suppress activism on civil rights, it also proved to be an ironic ally to the movement. Forces in the State Department and the Eisenhower administration understood that the persistence of Jim Crow made it awfully difficult, particularly in Africa and Asia, for the United States to claim for itself the banner of democracy.
One of the things that is most fascinating, and usefully disorienting, about the African-American struggle in the US is the way it reverses a trope of American exceptionalism and American imperialism. Where America’s hagiographers like to see the US as a City on the Hill, as a light unto the nations, African Americans have often upended that formulation, claiming that the United States is a laggard compared to the rest of the world.
As Frederick Douglass claimed in his “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” speech:
There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.
Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.
Or, as Martin Luther King drily observed in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail“:
The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.
The ongoing freedom struggle of African Americans demonstrates that when it comes to democracy, the United States often needs teachers, rather than students, from abroad.