Between Masters and Slaves: Dialectics and Historical Development

What follows is a short paper I wrote for a cultural history seminar I am currently taking at Northwestern. Centered on David Roediger’s path breaking book The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class, this paper attempts to clarify the logic of historical development at work in Roediger’s argument. More broadly, it gestures toward a conception of history in which historical development, though constrained by various structural forces, remains contingent in the philosophical sense of the term. 


David Roediger’s Wages of Whiteness retraces the construction of the social category of whiteness and its crucial role in the shaping of the American working class in the first half of the 19th century. Moving away from traditionally Marxist interpretations of historical change in which structural explanations are privileged, Roediger positions himself in the line of new labor historians such as E. P. Thompson and Herbert Gutman to weave a complex narrative that includes both cultural and socio-economic processes. Whiteness, he argues, is a socially and historically constructed phenomenon that can only be understood if the historian takes both class and race into consideration. Throughout the book, Roediger describes historical change as operating through a series of disjunctions and oppositions—between wage labor and republicanism, white workers and black slaves, masters and journeymen—that bring about new cultural forms through confrontation and performance. Thus, historical change appears to proceed dialectically even though Roediger fails to make this logic explicit in the book. Using William Sewell’s Logics of History as supporting evidence, the following paper will argue that the logic of historical development at work in Wages of Whiteness is dialectical, actor-oriented, and contingent.   

For Roediger, the category of whiteness is the product of white workers attempting “to come to terms with their class—never simply economic—problems by projecting their longing  a despised race” embodied by black slaves.[1] At the root of this dialectical process, stands the central contradiction facing 19th century American workers between the expansion of wage labor and the capitalist disciplining of labor on one hand and the republican ideals of political freedom, economic independence, and ownership on the other. White workers, Roediger argues, attempted to come to terms with this tension by projecting their desires and anxieties onto black slaves and free blacks through various means including the use of blackface in minstrelsy, the adoption of certain terms such as free worker, and some physical acts of violence like race riots. When white domestic workers in the early nineteenth century demanded to be called hired help instead of the customary English term servant, it was not simply because they were trying to realize the republican ideal of self-employment, but also because they wanted to demarcate themselves from the black slaves who often performed similar tasks in similar conditions. In this example, white workers self-actualized as free workers through what the philosopher G.W.F. Hegel called determinate negation, that is, a form of relationality through which the subject acquires content by stating what it is not. Thus, the exclusion of blacks from the polity, labor market, and the ranks of humanity itself by white workers, led to the “liquidation of ethnic and regional cultures” among whites and the creation of a “largely empty whiteness.”[2] Here it becomes apparent that, despite its emphasis on language, Roediger’s theorizing of otherness owes less to structuralism and post-structuralism and more to the Marxist tradition influenced by Hegel’s famous master-slave dialectic. Subjects acquire their identity, including their class identity, by negating an “other” and its freedom, thereby reducing it to the status of object. The category of whiteness was thus constructed dialectically when white workers asserted their freedom by negating that of the black slave seen as erotic, careless, pre-industrial and fundamentally unfree.

While Roediger’s analysis is largely convincing, it fails to account for the precise mechanism explaining why this dialectical process unfolded in this particular way. Indeed, if white workers felt exploited, why didn’t they simply revolt against the capitalist class driving the spread of wage labor, as a standard Marxist analysis would have anticipated? Underlying Roediger’s argument is an assumption than historical change is not transparent or mechanical but rather mediated and shaped by meaning making historical agents. The workers’ proximity to chattel slavery, republican ideology, and precarious economic conditions all contributed to the making of whiteness but the historian cannot understand how these elements shaped the dialectical process described above without conducting his or her analysis from the perspective of the workers themselves. Indeed, the disjunction between the workers’ worldview and economic reality only becomes historically determinant if the historian recognizes workers as active historical agents engaged in the production of meaning. As a result, the rise of the idea of whiteness can only be explained if one takes into consideration the active role of white workers in creating it. As Roediger argues, far from being the one-dimensional victims of economic domination, white workers are historical actors “who make (constrained) choices and create their own cultural forms,” including racism.[3] Thus, working class racism cannot simply be attributed to a fear of competition from black workers in the labor market, or mere scapegoating of a weaker class, but is rather the result of a complex series of practices that must be contextualized to become meaningful and historically salient. As Sewell holds, “culture […] should be understood as a dialectic of systems and practices”[4] and it is only when we envision workers as actors in a specific cultural system, as opposed to the mindless ideological mouthpiece of the oppressor, that we can understand why their anger and anxiety were directed at powerless black populations rather than the capitalist class. Thus, Roediger argues, we must understand “’whiteness’ and white supremacy as creations, in part, of the white working class itself.”[5]

The production of meaning by white workers therefore appears to be the guiding thread of the dialectic of historical development in Wages of Whiteness. But how does meaning function exactly? Roediger seems to understand language as a web of significance anchored in existing social practices within which actors make sense of themselves and their actions but he remains vague on the topic. At his most explicit, he holds that meaning is “always multi-faceted and socially contested, but it is neither absent nor unconnected with social relations.”[6] For a more sophisticated understanding of meaning and its role in historical development, we must turn to Sewell and Logics of History. In his discussion of Geertzian cultural anthropology, Sewell draws our attention to Clifford Geertz’s understanding of symbols a possessing both a constitutive function (“model for”) and representative function (“model of”).[7] Thus, any given symbol, for instance the word freeman, both describes an existing set of social relations—a freeman is not a slave—and concurrently shapes this very same set of social relations—a freeman is a white worker. According to Sewell, Geertz, guilty of too much synchronicity, fails to explore “the possibility of a disjunction” between these two mirroring functions, a failure that precludes the historian from grasping the dialectical nature of historical development. Indeed, this disjunction—the fact that our descriptions of, or prescriptions for, the social world will never quite correspond to reality— “opens up for actors a space of critical reflection about the world” and creates a gap for social, and therefore historical, change.[8] This disjunction in the interpretation and application of symbols exists precisely because both functions require the exercise of human consciousness and the creation of meaning which is necessarily a creative act. In this view, because meaning is, following Geertz, publicly available and contextual, the historian must analyze how actors make sense of their situation in relation to their particular context to understand why the dialectical logic of historical development unfolds in a particular way, why, in this case, the category of freeman became associated with whiteness.

In his discussion of the term slavery, Roediger shows how the existing social context influenced ordinary workers’ understanding of the term as an essentially black category.[9] A central dichotomy of eighteenth century political thought, from Rousseau to Jefferson, the opposition between slavery and liberty moves beyond mere metaphorical punch when understood in the post-revolutionary American context. Indeed, he argues, it is precisely because ordinary American workers of the revolutionary and Antebellum period lived in direct contact with chattel slavery and its horrors, that the idea of slavery became such an important force in the shaping of the American working class. For the indentured servant, slavery was no metaphorical loss of liberty but a very real and scary possibility scarcely different from his own situation. This sensitivity to the realities of slavery, in turn, made white workers more receptive to political and cultural critics of white enslavement and heightened the need for white workers to define themselves as freemen in opposition to black slaves. As a result, when interpreted in the relevant social and cultural context, the constitutive function of the term freeman reads as such: a freeman is a white worker because in nineteenth century America all slaves were black. Slavery thus became an essentially black category just as the rising consciousness of the working class became increasingly associated with whiteness.

Finally, because the logic of historical development advanced by Roediger and Sewell depends on the ability of historical actors to create meaning and act upon it—a necessarily contested enterprise—it follows that historical change is fundamentally contingent and non-teleological. The dialectical process is never pre-determined and could, at any time, have taken a different path. The use of blackface in popular theater during the Antebellum period, for instance, demonstrates a complex dialectic between desire and rejection of black citizens and slaves that could have led to a different meaning of whiteness. When Roediger wonders what America would look like if “the same social energy and creativity poured into blackface entertainments had somehow gone instead into the preservation and elaboration of Negro Election Day,” he is not engaging in revisionist history but rather underlying the absolute contingency of historical development and hinting at the political promise contained in the realization that things can always be otherwise. [10] Here lies the most profound and, I would argue, vital dimension of Sewell and Roediger’s vision of historical development.

[1] David R. Roediger, Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (London and New York: Verso, 2007), 14.

[2] Roediger, Wages of Whiteness, 118.

[3] Roediger, Wages of Whiteness, 9.

[4] William Sewell, Logics of History: Social Theory and Social Transformation (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2005), 173.

[5] Roediger, Wages of Whiteness, 9.

[6] Roediger, Wages of Whiteness, 15.

[7] Sewell, Logics of History, 190.

[8] Sewell, Logics of History, 191.

[9] Roediger, Wages of Whiteness, 28.

[10]Roediger, Wages of Whiteness, 127.