Confederate War Socialism

I love it when Richard Williams links to my blog, especially when the point to be made is so trivial and reflective of his own insecurities.  Richard seems to think that I believe the Confederacy to be the “the forerunner to the Soviet Union. They loved centralization of power.”  The closest I came to suggesting such a comparison was in quoting John Majewski, who described the Confederate political experience as “Confederate War Socialism.”  My point was that the Confederate government’s wartime policies do not add up to anything approaching the limited government image that some people choose to remember.

Richard also took the opportunity to remind me (as if anyone needs to be reminded) that the Confederate government never knew anything but war.

Of course, Kevin seems to forget this was a war-time government fighting what they viewed as an invasion. The CSA never knew anything other than a war footing. The war drove every decision and there is no other time nor circumstance with which to compare. That tends to skew any discussion or comparison regarding centralization of power in the Confederate States.

No argument there.  The policies of the Confederate government reflected the needs of a modern state at war.  Unfortunately, Williams seems to be completely unaware of the move toward centralized governments across the western world.  The Confederate experience is not an aberration, but part of a much broader trend, which has been addressed in one way or another by a number of historians, including Paul Quigley, Andre Fleche, and Peter and Nicholas Onuf.  It’s safe to assume that Richard will not bother to read these books.

Finally, I love the fact that Richard makes it a point to identify me as an academic historian.  I guess he has trouble with the books I read or what I write, though I’ve never seen an actual critique of one of my publications.  Today he placed me alongside David Blight, which is quite an honor.  By the way, I recently learned that Blight is going to blurb my forthcoming book on the Crater and historical memory.  I guess I am guilty as charged.  To make matters worse, tomorrow I head to Milwaukee to take part in the annual meeting of the OAH and you can bet that I am going to get in line with my fellow historians.

Thanks for the good laugh, Richard.

12 comments… add one
  • Ray Baker Jan 5, 2015 @ 11:42

    I have recently noticed a thread of socialism in the arguments of many of the prominent pro-slavery thinkers in the Antebellum South, (as Bruce Miller noted) especially George Fitzhugh, who said
    “Slavery,” he wrote, “is a form, and the very best form, of socialism.”[14] “Socialism,” he continued:

    Proposes to do away with free competition; to afford protection and support at all times to the laboring class; to bring about, at least, a qualified community of property, and to associate labor. All these purposes, slavery fully land perfectly attains. […] Socialism is already slavery in all save the master… Our only quarrel with Socialism is, that it will not honestly admit that it owes its recent revival to the failure of universal liberty, and is seeking to bring about slavery again in some form.[15] (from wikipedia)
    Pretty amazing, as much of this thought pre-dated Marx. hope this helps, Ray

  • Bruce Miller Apr 22, 2012 @ 18:09

    I just recently saw this from an article by Richard Nelson Current, commenting on John Calhoun’s political/philosophical legacy (“John C. Calhoun, Philosopher of Reaction” *The Antioch Review* 3/2 (Summer, 1943):

    “George Fitzhugh took a very different but even more extreme stand. In his *Sociology for the South, or the Failure of Free Society*, published at Richmond in 1854, he admitted the accuracy and justice of the socialist case against capitalism but asserted that the socialists overlooked the need for a master at the head of each of their ideal communities – a need which the Southern plantation system, or something like it, alone could meet. Fitzhugh praised slavery as the only workable form of socialism and urged the whole world to adopt it, at once, as the sole cure for class conflict and the other ills of competitive society!”

    You may not believe that the Confederacy was socialism, Kevin. But one of the most famous defenders of slavery thought that the slavery system was! Or, at least he claimed to for propaganda purposes.

  • TF Smith Apr 18, 2012 @ 18:58

    Who knew the Cryptkeeper was a CSA partisan?

    • Andy Hall Apr 23, 2012 @ 3:48

      I thought that was Clyde Wilson.

    • John Buchanan Apr 23, 2012 @ 7:36

      Do you mean Al Davis?

  • Tom Apr 18, 2012 @ 17:04


    Also in response to Richard’s point, I would just add that governments are created to deal with emergencies. It is no excuse to point out that the Confederate system of government was always on a war footing and never had the chance to govern during tranquil and peaceful times. In many way, history reflects societies careening from one crisis to another. Certainly, American history had few eras without some gigantic crisis or other. The only fair way to judge the Confederate system of government is how it worked in practice under pressure, in an emergency. It failed that test.

    My own reading of Confederate Constitutional history is that the Confederates on the whole were not Constitutional purists in practice (although they did blow a lot of hot air on this issue before secession). The document they wrote purported to restraint the central government, but none of those restraints were effective because the leaders and the mass of society understood that the restraints would have prevented the Confederacy from effectively fighting the war. Except for a few fire-eating diehards, most Confederates accepted and supported the centralization of power by Richmond.

    In fact, more and more, I am beginning to think that the Confederacy survived for as long as it did only because of Jefferson Davis’s leadership, which included a respectful but constant repudiation of the view of limited government reflected in the Confederate Constitution. I suspect that he was a much greater leader than people currently give him credit.

    I am not suggesting he was perfect. He did make a few disastrous military decisions, including probably the Gettysburg campaign and, of course, elevating Hood. And I am not down-playing the immorality of slavery. But Davis may well have one of the major reason that the Confederacy held together for the duration. He accomplished this, by, among other things, expanding the central government’s power so that it could more effectively wage war. And Congress, and most States legislatures and courts, and most of the people, supported him in this.

  • Pat Young Apr 18, 2012 @ 8:09

    If modern neoconfederates want to evalute today’s government policies by asking “What Would Our Confederate Ancestors Do” the answers are:
    1. Have black people work for free. No need for Obamacare if all the non-white hospital employees are slaves.
    2. Keep taxes on the wealthy down, but borrow enormous sums to fund hopeless initiatives.
    3. Trammel on the authority of state governments.
    4. Seize what you need and pay for it with worthless promissory notes.
    Perhaps others want to suggest more entries on the WWOCAD list.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 18, 2012 @ 8:20

      I just want to state for the record that I do not consider Richard to be a Neo-Confederate. I’ve said before that I am not a big fan of that particular reference. Richard’s problem is that he is insecure when faced with facts that conflict with his preferred memory of the Confederacy. I would be much more interested in a response to the specific points made as opposed to the same tired references to academia, which he knows nothing about.

      • Michael Lynch Apr 18, 2012 @ 12:47

        Come to think of it, I guess it is a little weird that in the past he’s argued for the role of personal, real-life experience in interpreting history, and yet when it comes to talking about academia and education, he points to his use of empirical evidence. Whatever floats his boat, I guess.


        • Kevin Levin Apr 18, 2012 @ 12:52

          In the end, I actually don’t know much of anything about academia. Yes, I read scholarly books and interact with academics at conferences and on other projects, but I assume that constitutes one small aspect of the profession/culture. The funny thing is Richard adores academics. They just happen to be the folks that he agrees with such as Forrest and Genovese. In the case of the latter there is no evidence that he has ever read one of his books or articles.

  • Woodrowfan Apr 18, 2012 @ 6:53

    you also have an article in the new OAH magazine! well done..

    • Kevin Levin Apr 18, 2012 @ 7:59

      Thanks. I had a blast writing that piece. Overall it’s a first-rate issue and I got to work with Carl Weinberg of the OAH and Carol Sheriff, who served as the issue’s guest editor.

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