Book Review: Capitalism, Slavery, And Republican Values

Capitalism, Slavery, And Republican Values: American Political Economists, 1819-1848, by Allen Kaufman

This book, at slightly over 160 pages if its lengthy introduction and forward by a couple of fellow Marxist travelers is included, is at least mercifully short. One advantage a reader has in this book is that the author assumes that he is writing to fellow Marxists, so he is at least more honest than he would be if he was writing to a mainstream audience. Although the author, like many of his ilk, enjoys critiquing the work of others and seeking to find incoherence and inconsistency in their works, the whole Marxist enterprise, by criticizing capitalism on moral grounds but reducing all questions to class and economics, is itself incoherent, and inconsistent in the fact that it argues for equality of resources but invariably creates a system by which there is inequality enforced by government and political connections. Ultimately, the Marxism of the author, and any other kind, fails because at their base life is about moral choices and not about economics alone. One cannot criticize Smith and Ricardo for reducing mankind to homo oeconomicus when one does the same thing without being exposed for double standards and hypocrisy.

In terms of its contents, the book itself sacrifices breath for some appearance of depth. The seven chapters of the book first introduce Adam Smith and Ricardo and Malthus on questions of wealth and labor and then deal with three antebellum American political economists who are somewhat obscure, but who the author judges as more important than more familiar choices. Two of the chapters address Daniel Raymond on worth and protecting the American republic from slave labor, two chapters address Thomas Roderick Dew on accommodating the republic to history and using black slavery as a check on the power and political dissatisfaction of the working class and the last chapter looks at Jacob Cardozo’s efforts to make slavery work. Of course, in the author’s mindset, slavery could not work because it was inimical to the global capitalism that the South was integrated with, while for others slavery was inimical to Republican virtue and therefore immoral. One can agree with the antislavery position of the author without arguing from the same premises.

As is often the case in a book like this, which consists of intense but somewhat narrowly focused criticism, one learns a lot about the critic but not necessarily a lot about what is being criticized. Since the author is fundamentally unreliable both in cherrypicking his subject matter and in choosing an inappropriate and highly flawed methodology, namely the Marxist perspective, his supposed insights cannot be trusted. What is also noteworthy about this book is the way that the forward contains the criticism of other Marxists that point out some of the flaws of the author’s methodology, but do so from a point of view that welcomes the author’s discussion as a viable if unusual example of Marxist analysis. The unhelpful but clearly politically aimed choice of the forward to establish legitimacy where it might be questioned reminds me of an unhelpful and rather negative forward to a book I read by an author named Larry Greider, who was writing about the subject of generations, and the author was a respected minister within our mutual organization (both men have since left in a church split) who wrote a somewhat negative forward but was nonetheless one that was designed to demonstrate the legitimacy of the work, a forward chosen for political reasons rather than for reasons of actual appreciation of the work being written about. This struck me as highly unusual, and something to keep in mind, to remind the reader that one is dealing with a work that is in a highly politicized environment where one needs the support of well-known fellow believers in order to have one’s work taken respectfully at all. Works do not interpret themselves, and often they require a friendly introduction, something that gives me a surprising amount of pity and compassion on an author whose work ought to have appealed to his fellow Marxists interested in political economy on the basis of their shared worldview at all, without the need for such a dubious introduction.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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