Karl Marx was an analytically rigorous theoretician. But his 1853 article “The Duchess of Sutherland and Slavery” is a good reminder that he was also motivated by white-hot outrage about injustice.

Karl Marx monument in Friedrichshain neighborhood of Berlin, Germany. (Bildagentur-online / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

In 1853, Karl Marx wrote an article for the New York Daily-Tribune called “The Duchess of Sutherland and Slavery.” In it, he starts by discussing an “address of the Stafford House Assembly of Ladies to their sisters in America” condemning slavery.

The Daily-Tribune was an anti-slavery newspaper and Marx himself was a passionate supporter of the cause of abolition. But he was revolted by the moral posturing of the Stafford House Assembly of Ladies, which he saw as typical of the “philanthropy of the British Aristocracy” — which tended to focus on alleviating injustices “as far distant from home as possible, and rather on that than on this side of the ocean.”

Marx proceeds to give his readers a gruesome glimpse into the origins of the family fortune of the Assembly’s president, the Duchess of Sutherland. And in doing that, he shows us a side of his character that might be lost on some readers of his other work.

Marxism and Morality

When we talk about “Marxism,” we’re usually talking about two things: Marx’s theory of history and his theory of the workings of capitalist economies. He can be coolly analytically rigorous on both subjects. And some Marxists are insistent that, however morally loaded terms like “exploitation” and “alienation” might seem, Marx’s project was a purely “scientific” one with no moral dimension.

The germ of truth here is that Marx wasn’t anything like a moral philosopher. Other than a comment here and there scattered around his (mostly early) work, he had no interest in thinking through the kinds of debates that Kantians, utilitarians, and other factions have about the nature of morality. His theoretical contributions really did lie elsewhere — in a descriptive theory of how capitalism and other “modes of production” work, and how they rise and fall over the course of history.

But that shouldn’t blind us to the fact that what moved him to do this theoretical work in the first place was — whether or not he himself would quite put it this way — his white-hot moral outrage about capitalist injustice. That’s on full display in “The Duchess of Sutherland and Slavery.”

The Expropriation of the Duchess’s Clansmen

Marx tells us that the mode of production in the Scottish Highlands before the advent of capitalism was a “full degree below” even a feudal level of development. It was patriarchal — meaning that a “clan” headed by a chieftain functioned in every way like an extended family. The peasants in the clan would go to war under the chieftain’s banner when the time came, and in times of peace the lands they farmed — while different parts in practice were allotted to different individual families — were the common property of the clan was a whole.

Generally speaking, “every plot of land was cultivated by the same family, from generation to generation,” but Marx writes that there could be “no more question under this system, of private property, in the modern sense of the word, than there could be of comparing the social existence of the members of the clan to that of individuals living in the midst of our modern society.”

This system began to change in the eighteenth century as a system of “family regiments” were used to integrate the old clan system into the British military and the money economy began to intrude on the system of agricultural “production for use.” The most significant change, though, was about the property relations themselves.

One of the main claims of Marx’s theory of history is that the legal and political systems of a society will tend to adapt themselves to changes in economic relations, and in turn that they’ll stabilize those new relations by giving them the force of the law. In places like the Sutherland estate, what this meant is that the common property of a clan was reconceptualized as the private property of the aristocrats who headed the clans — the descendants of the old chieftains, first integrated into the larger British aristocracy and then treated as the holders of capitalist property titles — to dispose of as they pleased.

The Duchess of Sutherland in the early nineteenth century — who was the mother-in-law of the later Duchess of Sutherland who headed up the assembly condemning slavery — decided that instead of continuing to extract rent from peasants, the lands that were now legally regarded as her personal property would be more profitably used to pasture sheep. For the sheep to come, the humans had to go. Marx describes what that looked like in gruesome detail:

From 1814 to 1820, these 15,000 inhabitants, about 3,000 families, were systematically expelled and exterminated. All their villages were demolished and burned down, and all their fields converted into pasturage. British soldiers were commanded for this execution, and came to blows with the natives. An old woman refusing to quit her hut was burned in the flames of it. Thus my lady Countess appropriated to herself 794,000 acres of land, which from time immemorial had belonged to the clan. In the exuberance of her generosity she allotted to the expelled natives about 6,000 acres — two acres per family. These 6,000 acres had been lying waste until then, and brought no revenue to the proprietors. The Countess was generous enough to sell the acre at 2s 6d on an average, to the clan-men who for centuries past had shed their blood for her family.

A portion of the disposed peasants, Marx tells us in “The Duchess of Sutherland and Slavery,” were thrown “upon the sea-shore, and attempted to live by fishing. They “became amphibious, and, as an English author says, lived half on land and half on water, and after all did not live upon both.”

Taking up the story fourteen years later in the last section of his masterpiece Capital, Marx tells us that even this amphibious life was temporary. “The smell of their fish rose up to the noses” of the newly entrepreneurial aristocrats — who “scented some profit in it” and rented the seashore “to the big London fishmongers.” The former peasants were dispossessed for a second time.

Who Has Standing to Condemn Injustice?

Marx’s theory of history dictates that he doesn’t think it’s possible or desirable to return to a premodern form of life. The clock of economic progress can’t be turned back, only forward with the “expropriation of the expropriators” he looks forward to at the end of Capital. There, he speculates that taking capitalist private property into collective ownership can happen in a way that’s far less “protracted, violent and difficult” than the dispossession of peasants at the dawn of capitalism. The process that played out in places like the Sutherland estate was “a matter of the expropriation of the mass of the people by a few usurpers,” whereas the transition to socialism will mean “the expropriation of a few usurpers by the mass of a people.”

Marx is quite clear that there’s no global transition to socialism without a global transition to capitalism happening at an earlier time. So, on the one hand, it looks like for all the atrocities that accompanied the latter, it was an unavoidable stage of historical development. On the other hand, Marx just doesn’t look at this process with the cool indifference of the historical bird’s-eye view.

Even the most casual reader of “The Duchess of Sutherland and Slavery” and the follow-up to it in Part VIII of Capital will be able to feel the raw waves of moral outrage rolling off the text. And seeing the daughter-in-law of the brutal expropriator of fifteen thousand peasants, living off the fortune built up through that expropriation with no apparent sense of shame, posture about the moral evils of a different system of exploitation makes Marx’s blood boil. He can hear the screams of that old woman who died when the soldiers set fire to her hut and he wants you to hear them too.

He quotes an 1820 defense of the previous Duchess of Sutherland’s actions by her steward Mr Loch, who asked why a special exception should be made in this case to the “general rule” of “the absolute authority of the landlord over his land.” Why should that absolute authority be sacrificed to the “public interest” when presumably all decent people normally prioritize the interests of landlords over all else?

If so, Marx acidly asks, “Why should the slave-holders in the Southern States of North America sacrifice their private interest to the philanthropic grimaces of her Grace, the Duchess of Sutherland?”

Marx, of course, was a fervent opponent of the slave system. When Abraham Lincoln was reelected in 1864, Marx sent a telegram to Lincoln on behalf of the International Workingmen’s Association in which he expressed the fervent hope that the “triumphant war-cry” of Lincoln’s second term would be “Death to Slavery!”

But he hated the idea of a Duchess of Sutherland, living high off her family’s ill-gotten gains, wrapping herself in the moral cloak of the anti-slavery cause. He concludes that an “enemy of British wage slavery” has a “right to condemn” chattel slavery in the American South. “A Duchess of Sutherland, a Duke of Atholl, a Manchester Cotton-lord — never!”


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