Red Abolitionism

The defenders of slavery rightly identified the ideological links between abolitionism and socialism.

G. H. Andrews, "A Slave Auction in Virginia", in Illustrated London News, February 16, 1861. Collection of Maurie McInnis

Perhaps better than most on the American left today, the old advocates of the antebellum system of slavery understood the ideological connections between abolitionism and socialism. They were what one could call “intersectionalists of the Right,” since they sought to demonstrate how abolitionism, socialism, women’s emancipation, and other progressive struggles were all linked to attacks on the rights of property.

Those who fought for the preservation of slavery knew that their war was not only a domestic struggle, but an international one against the same tendencies manifested in European socialism. Their remarks anticipate by a generation the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, when he describes abolitionism, feminism, and the workers’ movement as part of a single cultural logic of modernity, unleashed by the Jacobin energies of the French Revolution.

Even now, neo-confederate and revisionist historians cast Lincoln as an “American Robespierre,” or even as the “American Lenin.”

Here some of the quotes from Confederate leaders and advocates of slavery on the shared logics of abolition and socialism.

Virginia Senator Robert M.T. Hunter, March 25, 1850:

Mr. President, if we recognize no law as obligatory, and no government as legitimate, which authorizes involuntary servitude, we shall be forced to consign the world to anarchy; for no government has yet existed, which did not recognize and enforce involuntary servitude for other causes than crime. To destroy that, we must destroy all inequality in property; for as long as these differences exist, there will be an involuntary servitude of man to man.

Your socialist is the true abolitionist, and he only fully understands his mission.

Jefferson Davis, on the eve of the Civil War:

In fact, the European Socialists, who, in wild radicalism, . . . are the correspondents of the American abolitionists, maintain the same doctrine as to all property, that the abolitionists, do as to slave property. He who has property, they argue, is the robber of him who has not.

La propriete, c’est le vol,” is the famous theme of the Socialist, Proudhon. And the same precise theories of attack at the North on the slave property of the South would, if carried out to their legitimate and necessary logical consequences, and will, if successful in this, their first state of action, superinduce attacks on all property, North and South.

George Fitzhugh, from his book Cannibals All!:

We warn the North, that every one of the leading Abolitionists is agitating the negro slavery question merely as a means to attain ulterior ends, and those ends nearer home . . . They know that men once fairly committed to negro slavery agitation — once committed to the sweeping principle, “that man being a moral agent, accountable to God for his actions, should not have those actions controlled and directed by the will of another,” are, in effect, committed to Socialism and Communism, to the most ultra doctrines of Garrison, Goodell, Smith and Andrews — to no private property, no church, no law, no government, — to free love, free lands, free women, and free churches.

George Fitzhugh to William Lloyd Garrison, 1856:

I shall in effect say, in the course of my argument, that every theoretical Abolitionist at the North is a Socialist or Communist, and proposes or approves of radical changes in the organization of society.

Friedrich Nietzsche, 1884, from the Nachlass:

Continuation of Christianity by the French Revolution. Rousseau is the seducer: he again removes the chains of woman, who from then on is represented in an ever more interesting way, as suffering. Then the slaves and Mistress Beecher-Stowe. Then the poor and the workers. Then the vicious and the sick — all that is brought to the fore.

And here are a couple by abolitionists who came to champion the cause of workers:

Wendell Phillips after the outbreak of the Paris Commune in 1871:

There is no hope for France but in the Reds.

Theodore Tilton:

The same logic and sympathy — the same conviction and ardor — which made us an Abolitionist twenty years ago, make us a Communist now.