Slavery and Socialism

Our brothers' keepers


The iron trammels and bracelets identified with slavery have seldom been found in visions of utopian paternalism. Socialist theoreticians in particular have tended to dismiss slavery as a contrived, malignant species of paternalism, one which resembles socialism no more than a B-52 resembles a ladybug. Over the years, however, a few observers have challenged this position, arguing that in theory or practice socialism does show a disturbing propensity to invoke slavery's chains.

Some of the more prominent spokesmen for this view need no introduction. George Orwell, who noted the inexorable careening of German and Russian socialisms into tyranny, remarked that the world's drift "has been not towards anarchy but towards the reimposition of slavery."[1] Ayn Rand, in her novel THE FOUNTAINHEAD, termed socialism "universal slavery—without even the dignity of a master."[2] Friedrich Hayek warned that socialism was reducing formerly free men to serfs. But the most insistent and provocative reasons for comparing socialism to slavery are found elsewhere. They come from the writing of a now-obscure author of the antebellum South, a Virginian political philosopher named George Fitzhugh.

Fitzhugh, a plantation owner of dubious financial standing, was a vocal and articulate champion of both socialism and slavery. He saw them as an outgrowth of altruistic, paternalistic principles which to him stood morally miles above selfishness and individualism. In two widely-read books, SOCIOLOGY FOR THE SOUTH (1854) and CANNIBALS ALL (1857), he put forth all the evidence one might desire of similarities between the two forms of paternalism.

Fitzhugh's philosophy had its feet in "respectable" ground: he took Christianity seriously, believed that men were their brother's keepers, decried selfishness, and thought family relationships were the ultimate sort of moral bonds.

"It is delightful to retire from the outer world, with its competitions, rivalries, envyings, jealousies, and selfish war of the wits, to the bosom of the family," Fitzhugh wrote. "You feel at once that you have exchanged the keen air of selfishness for the mild atmosphere of benevolence. Each one prefers the good of others to his own, and finds most happiness in sacrificing selfish pleasures, and ministering to others' enjoyments."[3]

The outer world, however, disgusted him. Laissez-faire society, he wrote, attempted "to banish Christian virtue, that virtue which bids us to love our nieghbor as ourself, and substitute the very equivocal virtues proceeding from mere selfishness."[4] In the outer world, war of the wits was the rule, which proved "quite as destructive to the weak, simple, and guileless as the war of the sword." [S, p. 21] Fitzhugh insisted that equal freedom to strive towards similar ends assured mutually hostile relationships: "There is no love between equals, and the divine precept, 'love thy neighbor', is thundered vainly in the ears of men straining for the same object." [S, p. 200] A simple leap in reasoning suggested to him that family relations be extended through society. He felt certain that slavery would be the best means of implementation.

"What is the difference between the authority of a parent and of a master?" Fitzhugh asked. "Neither pays wages, and each is entitled to the services of those subject to him.…Look closely into slavery, and you will see nothing so hideous in it; or if you do, you will find plenty of it at home in its most hideous form." [C, p. 89]

Slavery, like the family, thus fostered "protection" of the weak and promoted unselfish, Christian relationships. A master's "whole life is spent in providing for the minutest wants of others, in taking care of them in sickness and health," making him the least selfish of men, he wrote. [S, p. 247] The capitalist system, in contrast, stood callously indifferent to workers as human beings. "We believe that there is not an intelligent reformist in the world who does not see the necessity of slavery—who does not advocate its reimposition in all save the name," Fitzhugh declared. "Every one of them concurs in deprecating free competition, and in the wish and purpose to destroy it." [S, p. 94]

Fitzhugh thought slavery, unlike capitalism, benefitted all parties involved. "The interests of master and slave are bound up together, and each in his appropriate sphere naturally endeavors to promote the happiness of the other," he wrote. [C, p. 302] Good treatment and strong discipline, he felt, made slaves happier and more grateful, while hard work and loyalty by the slave made the master more disposed to take care of him. By giving men property in one another, the Biblical injunction to "love thy neighbor" was fulfilled. [S, p. 69]

It followed from this, at least for Fitzhugh, that liberty grew in proportion to the degree man was regulated. "In every kind and degree of union and intercourse with his species," he wrote, "it is possible that the liberty of the individual may be augmented by the very laws which restrain it, because he may gain more from the limitation of other men's freedom than he suffers by the diminution of his own." [C, p.110] Specifically, restricting the shrewd and the talented would end the "exploitation" of the weak. In a devastatingly honest admission, Fitzhugh summed up the purpose of his government as being to "restrict, control, and punish man in 'the pursuit of happiness.' " [S, p. 180]

Such ends were clearly not quite those of the Declaration of Independence. The architects of the Declaration considered people sovereign beings and thought that government existed to preserve individual liberty. Fitzhugh, consequently, charged out with a counterattack against the heritage of Jefferson, Monroe, and Madison.

"Man is born a member of society, and does not form society," Fitzhugh maintained. "He has no rights whatever, as opposed to the interests of society; and that society may very properly make any use of him that will redound to the public good." [S, p.25] Such a doctrine, he wrote, made society a band of brothers instead of a bag of cats "biting and worrying each other." [S, p. 25] To him the only creatures who valued liberty were wild beasts and wild men.

Many ostensible advocates of liberty, Fitzhugh stated, were really arguing for a form of slavery. Jeffersonians, in supporting "that degree of restriction, restraint, and control that would promote the general good" were in effect pursuing good government, not liberty. [C, p. 115] "All governments must originate in force, and be continued by force," he wrote. "The very term, government, implies that it is carried on against the consent of the governed…" [C, p. 353]

The direction of classical liberal thinking nonetheless alarmed Fitzhugh tremendously. He saw it heading to a position of philosophical anarchism, the substitution of complete individual sovereignty for the sovereignty of society. Slavery of a far harsher type than the sort he advocated, Fitzhugh thought, would ensue—such an event would doom all attempts to guarantee the "basic right" to security and protection from competition.

Fitzhugh recognized that the Declaration of Independence appealed to the talented and productive, and that his collectivist system would not enthrall them. He cited Britain's frustration over large numbers of its best workers emigrating because of Poor Laws which limited their wages, and expressed the South's chagrin at losing some promising individuals of its own. But more importantly, he resented the economic and cultural domination of the selfish, laissez-faire North over the Christian South. That capitalists of the North should be outstripping the South's elite in wealth, power, and sophistication infuriated him: it was unfair, he thought, that avaricious exploiters should surpass the Christian aristocrats of Dixie. Fitzhugh had one consolation. He believed that capitalism could not survive.

Opening Fitzhugh's books at random often leaves the reader wondering whether whole pages were lifted from the Communist Manifesto. Nowhere is such a feeling stronger than at Fitzhugh's account of the reasons for the "inevitable" demise of capitalism. Examples:

• All competition is but the effort to enslave others, without being encumbered by their support. [C, p.40]

• Indeed, [free laborers] have not a single right or a single liberty, unless it be the right or liberty to die. [C, p.30]

• They [the poor] produce everything and enjoy nothing. [S, p.24]

• A beautiful system of ethics, this, that places all mankind in antagonistic positions, and puts all society at war. [S, p.24]

• We are not aware that anyone disputes the fact that crime and pauperism increased pari passu with liberty, equality, and free competition. [S, p. 36]

• Free laborers are little better than trespassers upon this earth.…[S, p. 249]

Fitzhugh accepted not only a Marxist analysis of capitalism's impending death, but almost every other socialist tenet as well. Of socialist views on property, Fitzhugh, a self-educated lawyer and historian, remarked: "None but lawyers and historians are aware how much truth, justice, and good sense there is in the notions of the Communists, as to the community of property." [S, p. 161]

At another point he wrote, "If the socialists had done no other good, they would be entitled to the gratitude of mankind for displaying in a strong light the advantages of the association of labor." [S, p. 47]

Fitzhugh was careful, however, to qualify some aspects of his socialism. The trouble with most socialists, he thought, was that they did not have a realistic view of man. Observation showed him that socialist communities could not exist without strong leaders—masters, in essence. Utopian socialist communities succeeded only when they acquired despotic heads, like other family associations, to coordinate labor and goals.

Even Proudhon, "the greatest of all communists", had recognized this tendency for socialism to become open slavery, he said. [C, p. 263] So, instead of devising uncertain and unreliable ways to prevent slavery, Fitzhugh asked the utopian socialists to reconsider their opposition. "We slaveholders say you must recur to domestic slavery, the oldest, the best, and most common forms of Socialism," Fitzhugh wrote. "The new schools of Socialism promise something better, but admit, to obtain that something, they must first destroy and eradicate man's human nature." [S, p. 72]

Fitzhugh ended by writing that socialism and slavery alike were interested in making man his brother's keeper. As he put it, "socialism is already slavery in all save the master. It had well as adopt that feature at once, as come to that it must to make its schemes at once humane and efficient." [S, p. 70]

Fitzhugh's ideas about human nature are the most confusing aspect of his writings, and they contain contradictions which spill into his notions about property and the status of masters. In line with his refusal to indulge in the utopian fantasies of many socialists, he recognized the basic importance of selfishness. "Selfishness, as a ruler of action and a guide of conduct, is necessary to the existence of man, and of all animals," he wrote. [C, p. 80] But he further remarked that the unique attraction of slavery was that "each member best promotes his own selfish interest by ministering to the wants and interests of the rest"—ignoring the fact that exchange economies are organized exactly on that basis. [C, p. 47] That laissez-faire societies have the added benefit of giving the individual the right to withdraw from a relationship, if he finds his "wants and interests" not being adequately ministered to, Fitzhugh also ignored. At one point—rather, several—Fitzhugh said that slaves would not leave their positions even if they were granted the freedom to choose. But he did not say why, if this is the case, slaves should be denied the right to choose what their status should be!

Because Fitzhugh did recognize the importance of selfishness, he emphasized the importance of private property—a highly unusual thing for a socialist to do. He did so, however, from socialist grounds, out of a concern for the well-being of society. "Property is not a natural and divine, but conventional right; it is the mere creature of society and law," he wrote. "If private property generally were so used as to injure, instead of promote public good, then society might and ought to destroy the whole institution." [S, p. 185] How he reconciled this with another statement that it was "domestic slavery alone that can best establish a safe, efficient, and humane community of property" is not clear, unless he meant that the master's property was also the slaves. (emphasis added) [S, p.47]

More straightforward was Fitzhugh's position that private property would be dangerous in the wrong hands. "The author of the Declaration [of Independence] may have, and probably did mean, that all men were created with an equal title to property," he wrote. "Carry out such a doctrine, and it would subvert every government on earth. [S, p. 180] Obviously, in Fitzhugh's view, this would not have been in line with the social good. He therefore denied private property as a basic right of man.

Fitzhugh is at his most confusing when discussing the status of masters in society. In many cases, he argued that the master was as much—if not more of—a slave than anyone, since he had to maintain the health and welfare of all in his household. But in a very revealing passage in CANNIBALS ALL, Fitzhugh introduced a new view of the master:

Imitation, grammar and slavery suit the masses. Liberty and laissez-faire, the men of genius, and the men born to command.…To secure true progress, we must unfetter genius, and chain down mediocrity. Liberty for the few—Slavery, in every form, for the mass. [C, p. 94]

Liberty to do what (that was not permissible in a laissez-faire society)? The answer is not explicit, but implied: the liberty to enslave without being enslaved. Rule was the object of Fitzhugh's social system—rule incorporating the obligation to be the keeper of one's brother, and in some sense, to be kept by him—but ultimately, absolute and naked rule.

George Fitzhugh raised important issues about man, the state, and morality. His insights into all were profoundly sincere; he did not attempt to disguise his belief in socialism to make his views more palatable to his fiercely antisocialist audience. He anticipated basic questions about the legitimacy of the state, what social forms are most conducive to keeping one's brother, and the origin of rights. In all these ways, he is of more than passing interest.

But his fundamental uniqueness lay in his ability as a socialist to see the common ground shared by two variants of paternalism, slavery and socialism. In exposing the moral bases of both, and giving a clear look into the totalitarian mind, he did libertarians a lasting favor.

And perhaps, more importantly, he has given modern-day socialists something to think about—evidence which supports the contentions of Rand, Hayek, and Orwell.

Contributing editor Mark Frazier is a fourth-year journalism major at Harvard University. He spent last summer working as a reporter and researcher for columnist Jack Anderson in Washington, and while there served as a member of the Libertarian Task Force looking into Senators' spending votes.


[1] Quoted from HARVARD CRIMSON SUPPLEMENT, February 1972.
[2] Ayn Rand, THE FOUNTAINHEAD (New American Library: Signet Books, 1952), p. 632.
[3] George Fitzhugh, CANNIBALS ALL, OR SLAVES WITHOUT MASTERS (A. Morris, 1857), p. 300; hereinafter referred to in the text as "C."
[4] George Fitzhugh, SOCIOLOGY FOR THE SOUTH (B. Franklin, 1854), p. 20; hereinafter referred to in the text as "S."

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