Frederick Douglass, born in 1818, was an American slave and, after much suffering, escaped his binds to become a prolific scholar and abolitionist. Since the publishing of his many works, and his death in 1895, his previously forthright political position has become the subject of much obfuscation. This has become true to such a degree that even far-right wing ideologues proclaim him as having had similar views to them. After having read his auto-biographical novel, along with his other more minor works, I have come to the set conclusion that Douglass was not only opposed to these far-right ‘libertarians,’ but also, in all likelihood, considered himself a socialist of sorts, with multiple pieces of his having taken direct inspiration from the works of Karl Marx and his contemporaries. This may seem obvious to the everyman; Douglass did lead a far-left attack on the instituion of slavery, recruiting thousands of slaves to evade the oppressive framework of Southern slavery with his writing alone. However, when it comes to American political discourse (which continues to shift further towards acceptance of fascism), no figure is safe from far-right appropriation. They have attempted to steal away leftist figureheads throughout history; from Abraham Lincoln to Malcom X, Fred Hampton and Martin Luther King Jr. In this essay, I will use evidence from a variety of sources (both Douglass’ works and others) to prove definitively the elements of Marxist analysis that Frederick Douglass fulfilled. In doing this, far-right ideologues seeking to corrupt Douglass’ image will be certainly disproven.
Douglass and Wealth Inequality
Between the years of 1847 and 1874, Frederick Douglass wrote for and operated three separate newspapers; The North Star, Frederick Douglass’ Paper, and the New National Era, respectively. In these, Douglass would publish pieces on numerous topics. I want to focus on one topic that he wrote about repeatedly; wealth inequality. And while he explored topics of this nature often, there are a few instances in particular where we can find his socialist leanings especially exposed. For example, on November 28, 1856, Douglass published an article titled, ‘The Accumulation of Wealth.’ To quote directly, “The Spartan lawgiver who discouraged the accumulation of wealth, because of it's tendency to impair the liberties of his country, was fully justified in the extreme measures he adopted, by the universal experiences of nations, and the fate of his own country; the fall of Spartan liberties dating from the introduction of wealth and consequent luxury of her citizens.” What Douglass does here is indicate the origin of societal failure, the origin of corruption. He postulates that extreme measures taken throughout history to curb the evils of wealth accumulation were not only justified but, by subtle implication, inadequately capable of curbing the corruption of luxury.
Douglass continues, “His aim to exterminate wealth and refinement entirely, was, perhaps, not wise; it is not wealth of itself that produces the dreaded effects, but it's accumulation in the hands of a few— creating an aristocracy of wealth, ready to be the tool of an aggressive tyranny, or to become aggressive upon it's own account. With an increase of wealth comes an increase of selfishness, devotion to private affairs, and contempt of public —unless politics can be made to minister to the all absorbing selfishness of the individual.” Frederick Douglass was a man exposed very closely to unbridled wealth accumulation. In fact, he himself was forced to become a piece of wealth, a piece of capital, which produced profit for his slave-owner and left Douglass starving of the very products he generated. As a result of this close exposure he notes, correctly, that wealth becomes a corrupting factor as soon as it’s accumulation is allowed to balance on a small number of individuals, as it is under capitalism. Luxury is evil not in and of itself but, rather, as a result of it’s positioning in the hands of a few.
Quoting once more:
“To look at the treasures of Paris, or London, or New York, and other centres of wealth, one might at first feel disposed to agree in the assertion that man is acquisitive creature, even in the extreme case claimed by the defenders of [capitalism], by which wealth is accumulated by the few, instead of being distributed, as it should be, among the masses, rendering none rich, allowing none to remain poor. A wider range of observation, however, including man everywhere, will show that with the vast majority of mankind, a satisfaction of the wants of nature is all that is sought; and even in those centres of selfishness spoken of, there are vast multitudes who would be thus satisfied, but that the rush and crash of the mighty machine of society compels them, in self-defense, to join in the rush for wealth… Wealth has ever been the tool of the tyrant, the readiest means by which liberty is overthrown. A nation starting with free institutions and customs, begins to increase in wealth, and that wealth to accumulate in the hands of the few, and here is the lever by which, eventually and certainty, the liberties gained in a simpler age will be overthrown.”
Douglass keenly observes that, despite the seemingly beautiful innovation in concentrations of wealth, such as we find in the metropolises and mansions of the West, humans are not naturally inclined to attain such luxury. He then states the obvious conclusion of the article; that wealth (not to be confused with money) should be distributed more equitably among the populace, and that most, if not all, would be happy with such a distribution. This is nearing exact synonymity with Marx and Engels’ conception of the socialist mode of production.
In the over 170 years since the 'Manifesto of the Communist Party' was published, the conception of Marxist thought has become askew in the popular vernacular. Walk up to the average citizen of the United States and ask them to define communism, and they will fail exceptionally. This is due in no part to the failure or intention of the individual; most everyone would prefer to use a correct definition (excluding the far-right). The actual cause of this confusion and misdefinition falls much more closely in line with the failures of our Western educations. It is not in the bourgeois interest to properly inform the populace on any issue, let alone an issue concerning the evils of the bourgeoisie themselves. And so, sad as it may be, the majority of those around us are unable to define Marxism (or any of it's associated terms, for that matter). In an effort to combat this very fact, I will quote from a direct source on the matter, the co-founder of Marxism itself. In his work titled, 'Principles of Communism,' Frederick Engels writes, "What is Communism? Communism is the doctrine of the conditions of the liberation of the proletariat. What is the proletariat? The proletariat is that class in society which lives entirely from the sale of its labor and does not draw profit from any kind of capital; whose weal and woe, whose life and death, whose sole existence depends on the demand for labor." To simplify this definition even past it's current simplicity, we could say that communism is the act of liberating the working class. To do this, you must overthrow the liberal frameworks of wage labor and give ownership of the Means of Production to the proletariat equitably.
This distribution, which falls closely in line with what Douglass wrote about the distribution of wealth, will be not only more equitable, but indeed the first time true democracy has ever existed. Vladimir Lenin, founder of the Soviet Communist Party, wrote just this in his most popular work, 'The State and Revolution.' To quote from there, "And so in capitalist society we have a democracy that is curtailed, wretched, false, a democracy only for the rich, for the minority. The dictatorship of the proletariat, the period of transition to communism, will for the first time create democracy for the people, for the majority, along with the necessary suppression of the exploiters, of the minority." Yet again, by defining the characteristics of Marxism, we find parallels with Douglass' conception of equality as previously quoted. Lenin tells us that once you remove wealth from the hands of the few, and distribute the means of production to the larger working class, you create true democracy for the first time (rather than the bogus liberal democracy we find ourselves currently under). Frederick Douglass, either intentionally or otherwise, helped foster the conditions for this democracy, for socialism. He did this primarily through the publishing of his auto-biographical novel.
Douglass and Class Consciousness
In his auto-biographical novel, Douglass explains (in gross detail) the evils of slavery, a product of the inequality of capitalism. His intention by doing this was obvious, not simply through implication, but also through direct statement. In Chapter 11, Douglass informs the reader that he will not explain the exact details of his escape for two primary reasons. The first of these reasons pertains little to this piece, so I will skip it. To quote directly from the text:
“[Exposing the exact details] would most undoubtedly induce greater vigilance on the part of slaveholders than has existed heretofore among them; which would, of course, be the means of guarding a door whereby some dear brother bondman might escape his galling chains. I deeply regret the necessity that impels me to suppress any thing of importance connected with my experience in slavery. It would afford me great pleasure indeed, as well as materially add to the interest of my narrative, were I at liberty to gratify a curiosity, which I know exists in the minds of many, by an accurate statement of all the facts pertaining to my most fortunate escape. But I must deprive myself of this pleasure, and the curious of the gratification which such a statement would afford. I would allow myself to suffer under the greatest imputations which evil-minded men might suggest, rather than exculpate myself, and thereby run the hazard of closing the slightest avenue by which a brother slave might clear himself of the chains and fetters of slavery.”
Douglass makes a great point here while simultaneously stating his intention when writing the novel itself. He explains that exposing the exact details of his escape would likely lead to more vigilance on the part of slaveholders who happen to read the book. He intends not to make it hard for slaves to escape their bonds and, in all reality, wishes as many of his brothers to escape as possible. What he means when he mentions the material interests of his narrative is exactly that; he hopes to inspire slaves to escape their master’s. Douglass wrote his novel for the express purpose of raising class consciousness, that is, to inform members of the slave class regarding the institutions of their bondage. He knew what it was like to be commodified, to be reduced to nothing but raw labor, exploited endlessly for the profit of others. This is why he goes into such gross detail when explaining instances of mistreatment on the part of the institution.
To quote Douglass much earlier into the book:
“My master was one of this rare sort. I do not know of one single noble act ever performed by him. The leading trait in his character was meanness; and if there were any other element in his nature, it was made subject to this. He was mean; and, like most other mean men, he lacked the ability to conceal his meanness… In August, 1832, my master attended a Methodist camp-meeting held in the Bay-side, Talbot county, and there experienced religion. I indulged a faint hope that his conversion would lead him to emancipate his slaves, and that, if he did not do this, it would, at any rate, make him more kind and humane. I was disappointed in both these respects. It neither made him to be humane to his slaves, nor to emancipate them. If it had any effect on his character, it made him more cruel and hateful in all his ways; for I believe him to have been a much worse man after his conversion than before. Prior to his conversion, he relied upon his own depravity to shield and sustain him in his savage barbarity; but after his conversion, he found religious sanction and support for his slaveholding cruelty… I have seen him tie up a lame young woman, and whip her with a heavy cowskin upon her naked shoulders, causing the warm red blood to drip; and, in justification of the bloody deed, he would quote this passage of Scripture—’He that knoweth his master’s will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes.’ Master would keep this lacerated young woman tied up in this horrid situation four or five hours at a time. I have known him to tie her up early in the morning, and whip her before breakfast; leave her, go to his store, return at dinner, and whip her again, cutting her in the places already made raw with his cruel lash. The secret of master’s cruelty toward ‘Henny’ is found in the fact of her being almost helpless. When quite a child, she fell into the fire, and burned herself horribly. Her hands were so burnt that she never got the use of them. She could do very little but bear heavy burdens. She was to master a bill of expense; and as he was a mean man, she was a constant offence to him. He seemed desirous of getting the poor girl out of existence. He gave her away once to his sister; but, being a poor gift, she was not disposed to keep her. Finally, my benevolent master, to use his own words, ‘set her adrift to take care of herself.’”
The immense cruelty Douglass describes here is not alone as an account of the evils of slavery. Douglass describes situations of similar travesty on numerous occasions throughout the narrative. This is true to such an extent that my selection of this particular abuse was near random, equally evil acts are depicted in similar detail at least thrice within the novel’s pages.
In any case, the gross detail Douglass uses here serves an obvious purpose; an appeal to the reader’s sense of pathos. If he can summon feelings of disgust or a level of empathy for the slaves’ conditions, Douglass effectively raises awareness for the abolitionist cause and thereby increases the chance for more slaves to evade oppression and escape to slavery. His detailed accounts, as is easily observable, lend themselves perfectly to the intention of raising class consciousness. But what is the importance of pointing out mistreatment of the slaveholding establishment? What is the point of class consciousness?
To answer these questions, we can again turn to Vladimir Lenin. This time, I will quote from his work, ‘Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder,’ where he wrote:
“The fundamental law of revolution, which has been confirmed by all revolutions and especially by all three Russian revolutions in the twentieth century, is as follows: for a revolution to take place it is not enough for the exploited and oppressed masses to realise the impossibility of living in the old way, and demand changes; for a revolution to take place it is essential that the exploiters should not be able to live and rule in the old way. It is only when the “lower classes” do not want to live in the old way and the ‘upper classes’ cannot carry on in the old way that the revolution can triumph. This truth can be expressed in other words: revolution is impossible without a nation-wide crisis (affecting both the exploited and the exploiters). It follows that, for a revolution to take place, it is essential, first, that a majority of the workers (or at least a majority of the class-conscious, thinking, and politically active workers) should fully realise that revolution is necessary, and that they should be prepared to die for it...”
Once again, review of Marxist conceptions can put Douglass’ intentions into context perfectly. Lenin explains that for revolution (or any major change, for that matter) to occur, the lower class in society must become conscious and convinced of the need for revolution. Without such consciousness, society will stagnate, with change unable to occur. So, just as can be found in his other writings, Douglass’ most famous work is supported and contextualized by leftist ideological principles.
Douglass and Wage Slavery
In early 1865, when Douglass was only 47 years of age, the thirteenth amendment of the United States constitution was ratified and the institution of chattel slavery, which Douglass had so passionately wrote against, was abolished. What many view as Douglass’ life goal had been completed, yet he still had 30 years left to live. If we assumed that Douglass’ critiques of the capitalist systems ended with slavery (which right-wing appropriators would would love for you to believe), Douglass would have no reason to write a single word in the era following it’s abolishment. However, much to the dismay of modern libertarian mouthpieces, he continued writing on the topic of socio-economic struggle for the remainder of his life. In fact, he wrote and spoke quite often in regards to a very specifically left-wing (even Marxist) concept known as, ‘wage slavery.’
Merriam Webster’s dictionary concisely defines a, ‘wage slave,’ as, “ a person dependent on wages or a salary for a livelihood.” Not only was the idea of wage slavery present in post-chattel America, but Douglass was a foundational figure to opposing it. As the structure of the South began to change before his eyes, Douglass was intelligent enough to adapt his critiques of the capitalist system to the material conditions of post-chattel America. For example, in 1886, 21 years after the abolishment of slavery, Douglass wrote the book, ‘Three Addresses on the Relations Subsisting between the White and Colored People of the United States.” And in this text, Douglass repeatedly rails against socio-economic hardships after the abolition of slavery. To quote directly, “Experience demonstrates that there may be a wages of slavery only a little less galling and crushing in its effects than chattel slavery, and that this slavery of wages must go down with the other.” In this text lies a simple reality. Douglass did not lay down his head to rest upon the ratification of the thirteenth amendment. He did not cease writing on the unfair and exploitative nature of the capitalist mode of production. Douglass took a decidedly left-wing stance not only with regards to slavery, but also with regards to the exploitation following in it’s absence.
To quote once more:
“An empty sack is not easily made to stand upright. The man who has it in his power to say to a man, you must work the land for me for such wages as I choose to give, has a power of slavery over him as real, if not as complete, as he who compels toil under the lash… Against the voice of Stevens, Sumner, and Wade, and other farseeing statesmen, the Government by whom we were emancipated left us completely in the power of our former owners. They turned us loose to the open sky and left us not a foot of ground from which to get a crust of bread. ”
Once you break down the verbose nature of his prose and summarize his thoughts in modern tongue, the conclusion here becomes numbingly simple; Douglass believed that the system of wage slavery which replaced chattel was just as potent a form of control as chattel slavery was itself. If Frederick Douglass really was the libertarian champion that modern pundits portray him as, wouldn’t he have only opposed slavery for it’s oppressive hierarchical structure? Wouldn’t his flow of critiques have ceased in the presence of a more libertarian capitalism? Indeed, it is true he would have. But this was not the case. Douglass did not decree the struggle for liberation was over. Instead, he correctly postulated that the socio-political conditions that allowed for chattel slavery to thrive were still alive and well. Douglass knew, just as Marx had outlined, that the only way to end economic oppression of the workers was to adopt a socialist mode of production and give those very workers control of the fruits of their labor. This is even reinforced by his mention of slaves being left to their previous owners. In the most literal possible sense, Douglass noted that former slaves were still, ‘owned,’ by the same people. The only change that occurred was in the manner slaveholders had to go about forcing reliance.
Adolf Hitler, undoubtedly the most evil, despicable human being ever to grace the planet, led a far-right totalitarian state in Germany. He committed vast atrocities of unimaginable cruelty under the thin veil of leftist rhetoric. He was once quoted as having said, “Our adopted term ‘Socialist’ has nothing to do with Marxian Socialism. Marxism places no value on the individual, or individual effort or efficiency…” And yet, this far-right appropriation seems to have drawn the sheet over the world’s eyes; many still believe Hitler was a Marxist of some sort. The fact of the matter is that far-right appropriation of leftist rhetoric and leftist figures can be extremely effective. The combatting of this effort is crucial to fighting right wing movements and must be done anywhere appropriation is found. This is why, when I see far-right libertarians appropriating the works of Douglass (and, even more disturbingly, Lincoln), I see the need for proper education on the matter. Propaganda can only go as far as we let it, and so, we must take any possible action to combat it.
Frederick Douglass was not a capitalist. In no way is it truthful for right wing ideologues to claim his works of anti-slavery as their own. Douglass was an abolitionist who saw first-hand the horrors that the free market can cause. A man who escaped oppression by the capitalist institution and spent his life railing against it. Therefore, after careful reading of the works of his works, and the simple definition of Marxist principles, I can assert definitively that Frederick Douglass was not, in any way, a libertarian.
 Karp, Matt, and Frederick Douglass. “Frederick Douglass Railed Against Economic Inequality.” Jacobin, 20 Feb. 2020, jacobinmag.com/2020/02/frederick-douglass-railed-against-economic-inequality
 Engels, Frederick. “Principles of Communism.” Marxists Internet Archives, 1999, www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1847/11/prin-com.htm.
 Lenin, Vladimir. “The State and Revolution.” Marxists Internet Archives, 1999, www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/staterev/.
 Douglass, Frederick. Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Chelsea House, 1988
 Lenin, Vladimir. “‘Left-Wing’ Communism: An Infantile Disorder.” Marxist Internet Archive, Progress Publishers, 1999, www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1920/lwc/.
 “Wage Slave.” Merriam-Webster's Dictionary, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/wage slave.
 Douglass, Frederick. Three Addresses on the Relations Subsisting between the White and Colored People of the United States. Kessinger Publishing, 2010.
About the Author:
My name is Simon and I am a Marxist-Leninist born on the front range of Colorado. I currently live in Central Missouri and attend Camdenton Highschool. I am unusually young for the position of writer, which isn't an abnormality lost on me. I focus primarily on contemporary international issues with a particular focus on socialist states and their interactions. I hope to begin organizational work as soon as I am able.