ABOLITION, A CLASS-FREE ENDEAVOR
While I’m grateful for the attention Daniel Lazare gives to my book Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves [“Intolerable Cruelty,” Feb. 14], in some of his comments I don’t recognize the story I told. With such phrases as “Hochschild…structures his tale as a middle-class epic” and “Abolition did not succeed in Britain until it transcended the narrow middle-class moralism that Hochschild celebrates,” he implies two things: (1) that the British antislavery movement was–at least until the very end–an entirely middle-class affair; and (2) that this is something I celebrate. Neither is so.
While it’s true that the great majority of the public figures in the movement were middle or even upper class, important voices in the very early years included two former slaves, Quobna Ottobah Cugoano and Olaudah Equiano, both of whom wrote widely sold books and made extensive speaking tours. Furthermore, as I show, one of the remarkable things about this movement is how right from the beginning it drew support from across the class spectrum. The workers in the new industrial city of Manchester made it an antislavery stronghold; at one point nearly a third of the city’s population signed petitions to Parliament against the slave trade. Throughout the country, more people signed such petitions than were eligible to vote; in some small towns signers included every literate inhabitant. In 1789, 769 metalworkers from Sheffield put their names to such a petition, saying that even though they stood to lose income if the knives and razors they made were no longer used by slave ship captains to trade for slaves, nonetheless “your petitioners…consider the case of the nations of Africa as their own.” Narrow middle-class moralism?
Finally, of course, there were the tens of thousands of men and women who took part in the great uprisings that shook the British West Indies. The huge revolt that put the plantations of northwest Jamaica in flames in 1831-32 beyond doubt speeded up Parliament’s passage of emancipation: High British officials openly acknowledged that they might not be able to contain the next rebellion. The more than 500 people who lost their lives in this fighting and the executions that followed were not middle class, they were slaves. They are the “rebels” of my book’s very title.
New York City
Adam Hochschild’s logic is difficult to follow. Nowhere in my review did I suggest that British abolitionism was “an entirely middle-class affair.” No movement ever is, and in fact the mark of a middle-class movement is often its ability to draw from a broad social spectrum. Because the middle class sees itself as the golden mean–neither rich nor poor, radical nor conservative–it often attracts those above and below in search of the happy compromise it purportedly represents. The participation of urban workers and ex-slaves in a subordinate capacity therefore proves nothing. Rather than undermining the movement’s middle-class character, it confirms it.
As for “narrow middle-class moralism”–sorry, but the phrase fits British abolitionism to a T. Before Hochschild gets his dander up, he should realize that it is not meant as a slur but as a description of how the middle class actually thinks and acts. Composed as it is of professionals, entrepreneurs and other self-made types, it traditionally avoids the sort of bold, sweeping critique that might call into question the terms of its own success. Rather than attacking society as a whole, it limits itself to specific wrongs or grievances. In taking aim at slavery, British abolitionists thus turned a blind eye to social abuses such as child labor in coal mines and factories that were no less brutal but were not on their agenda. Not only does Hochschild fail to criticize this kind of narrow-gauge morality, he takes a swipe at others who do. I’m sure I’m not the only reader who will find this annoying.
By the way, British abolitionists were not the only ones at fault. In this country, the otherwise heroic William Lloyd Garrison bristled at the term “wage slavery” and attacked white workers for daring to strike for higher pay. Instead of grumbling, he said, they should be grateful that they weren’t in chains as well. Progress is never linear.
We’re planning a special issue on radio this spring and we want you to be a part of it. Whether you turn the dial, go online or listen via satellite, tell us in fifty words or less what your favorite station is and why (be sure to include your city and state).
Send submissions by March 20 to email@example.com or Favorite Radio Station, The Nation, 33 Irving Place, 8th floor, New York, NY 10003.
MEN IN BLACK
New York City
Russell Jacoby’s review of the third volume of my father’s unpublished work [“Men in Dark Times,” Feb. 7] was a little short on substance (I admit I am not an unbiased commentator). It is in fact the volume that deals with the New Left and the Vietnam War, and it is very apposite today. Jacoby seems to complain that it is too lucid. Of course, they are pieces written for a popular audience, sometimes in the heat of battle; if they weren’t lucid, they’d lose their point. When my father wrote about Hegel’s ontology or Marx’s dialectics, he could be tough sledding also (at least to my nonphilosophically trained eyes). Jacoby spends most of his time on Adorno and seems to count thirty volumes of sketches, notes and lectures as a blessing. My father was very particular about what he published, and we followed what I presume would have been his wishes in publishing less than a third of his sketches, etc. My father and Adorno respected each other deeply but had strong, almost bitter disagreements about Adorno’s support for the Vietnam War. That correspondence, and the content of the first two volumes thus far published of my father’s previously unpublished (in book form) writings, would make for highly interesting comment. Perhaps Jacoby can return to it soon.
I wish that Russell Jacoby had probed more deeply into Marcuse’s remarkable interaction with a younger generation of activists in the 1960s and ’70s in The New Left and the 1960s, which I edited. The intersection of Marcuse’s theory and politics with the New Left in the 1960s and ’70s and its relevance for politics today was a key theme that was engaged in detail in my introduction, in Angela Davis’s preface and in George Katsiafica’s afterword. By comparison, Adorno, whom Jacoby also reviews, was highly antagonistic to the New Left and distanced from the political movements of the day. As for Marcuse’s continued relevance, Jacoby misses the strong interest in Marcuse’s work worldwide and something of a renaissance of attention to his ideas. This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization, a book that anticipated in ideas the 1960s counterculture, and there will be conferences and celebrations in Brazil in May and in Philadelphia in September. In April, there will be a panel at the American Educational Research Association conference on Marcuse and Education, and there continue to be books and articles on Marcuse, including our six-volume Routledge Press Collected Writings of Herbert Marcuse and a six-volume German collection edited by Peter-Erwin Jansen published by zu Klampen Press, which also republished the nine-volume Suhrkamp Schriften collection. Thus Herbert Marcuse continues as a valuable resource for thought and action in the contemporary moment.
Frankfurt am Main, Germany
Reading Russell Jacoby’s review of my book about Adorno, I find one misunderstanding that I would like to correct. He says that it is my intention to “cast [Adorno] in a bad light” and mentions a quote from Adorno about his mother, the singer. It says, “I have to thank her for everything in nature but do not feel it as such.” Jacoby then adds, “For Jäger this cloudy sentence clearly damns Adorno. It’s ‘importance…can scarcely be overstated,’ he writes. The opposite–its importance can scarcely be understated–would be more accurate.” Since I am not a native speaker of English, I have no real judgment about the accuracy of the translation of this specific passage, but I can assure you that in the German version my intention is very clear: to emphasize Adorno’s emotional as well as intellectual attachment to his mother, which, as far as I am aware, nobody could reasonably “cast in a bad light.” In the chapter about the posthumously published “Aesthetic Theory,” I go so far as to read this book as an hommage to his mother. I deeply regret any misunderstanding of the passage Jacoby highlighted.
I’m afraid that Peter Marcuse has misread my comments about his father. First of all, for the record, I consider myself a student of Herbert Marcuse, whose work I cherish and whose blurb for my own first book bespoke his generosity. I did not “complain” in my review that Marcuse is “too lucid.” Rather, I mull on the fact that the attention bestowed on Walter Benjamin and T.W. Adorno eclipses that on Marcuse, and I surmise that scholars prefer opacity to lucidity; the former allows endless commentary, while the latter does not. Marcuse, perhaps like Edmund Wilson, has fallen out of favor among academic climbers because he is “too lucid.” Need I say that this is not a weakness, but a virtue? To be sure, according to Douglas Kellner, Marcuse has not fallen out of favor. I failed to note a confab in Philadelphia and a panel at the American Education Research Association. How could I have missed these? But, Comrade Doug, I am simply comparing the zillion writings on Adorno to the small trickle on Marcuse. Perhaps there is “something of a renaissance” of interest in Marcuse, but the accent (so far) needs be placed on the “something.” As to Jäger: He is a very courtly soul. I can learn from him. He does not dispute that he tried to put Adorno in a “bad light”; nor does he contest the many critical statements I made about his book. He takes exception to a single sentence where I suggest that he wrongly accents Adorno’s coldness to his mother. My apologies. I am happy to be corrected.