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Darwin, Lincoln and the survival of the slave-masters

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In Brief

February 12 was the bicentenary of the births of Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln. Their personal convictions towards slavery were pretty much the same. The name of the former is entangled with Social Darwinism as a doctrine about survival of the fittest. This distortion of ‘fitness’ sustains a pseudo-scientific basis to justify the naturalness for the division of human society into masters and slaves, whether chattel-slaves of the plantation South or wage-slaves of the capitalist factories. By contrast, the conventional ignorance about Lincoln is of the Great Emancipator.

Darwin’s hostility to chattel slavery shines through the concluding pages of the Voyage of the ‘Beagle’. After a page cataloguing atrocities, he dissected some of the arguments proposed in defence of slavery:

It is argued that self-interest will prevent excessive cruelty; as if self-interest protected our domestic animals, which are far less likely than degraded slaves, to stir up the rage of their savage masters. … It is often attempted to palliate slavery by comparing the state of slaves with our poorer countrymen; if the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin; but how this bears on slavery, I cannot see; as well might the use of the thumb-screw be defended in one land, by showing that men in another land suffered from some dreadful disease … It makes one’s blood boil, yet heart tremble, to think that we Englishmen and our American descendants, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guilty…

Darwin then consoled himself with the reflection ‘that we at least have made a greater sacrifice, than ever made by any nation, to expiate our sin’.


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True, only the British government had taxed its people to compensate slave-owners for the loss of their property in human beings after the freeing of slaves throughout the Empire from August 1834. The expiation did not extend to compensating the slaves from whom masses of surplus value had been expropriated to underpin the triumph of wage-slavery. The expansion of capital went on being buttressed by indenture as an alternative system of slavery and by peonage as debt slavery. The Britain that freed its chattel slaves in 1834 supported the slave-owning South to defend Lancashire cotton millers who were busy exploiting their wage-slaves.

That Darwin did not confront these facts is no more surprising than that his biographers do not ask where the money came from the support his lifetime of research and writing. He never had a paying job. On the Beagle, he was a ‘volunteer’ gentleman, not the official botanist. He had abandoned his studies in medicine where he might have earned a competence hastening patients to their graves. Had he been ordained as a clergyman, he would have joined Parson Malthus as a ‘gluttonous drone’, to quote Marx. Darwin earned next to nothing from his writings. In marrying his cousin, he consolidated their portion of the Wedgwood fortune, accumulated by the exploitation of wage slaves in the pottery works. In a class society, every act of civilisation is paid for by acts of barbarism.

Abraham Lincoln’s reputation as a liberator distorts the historical record. He looked forward to gradual and total abolition, with compensation, but did not go to war to free the slaves. He entered the Civil War in April 1861 to maintain the United States as a single nation-market-state, as he wrote in August 1862:

My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union … If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that … I have here stated my purpose according to my views of official duty and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free.

As head of the executive committee of the bourgeoisie, one of Lincoln’s official objectives was to hold onto the Mississippi Valley as a trade route for the mid-western States; a parallel aim was for the mill-owners of New England to retain dominance over their suppliers in the cotton-growing South. On New Year’s Day 1862, Lincoln accepted military necessity by signing a Proclamation to emancipate the slaves in order to defeat the Confederacy’s war for independence.

Obama has adopted the Lincoln logo to attach himself to the descendants of slaves. He mimicked Lincoln’s whistle-stop train from Illinois for his inauguration. He points to Lincoln’s example when giving cabinet posts to war criminals among both the Republicans and the Democrats. The parallels are even stronger between Lincoln’s ‘official duty’ to save the Union and Obama’s rescue of Wall Street.

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