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Posted on April 19th, 2012, by

Frederick Douglass is one of the prominent representatives of the abolitionist movement, whose entire life was focused on the abolition of slavery and change of relationships within the American society. In fact, Frederick Douglass had an extensive experience of being a slave and he knew the real life of slaves and the relationship between masters and slaves that helped him to understand better the essence of the problem of this relationship.

This is probably why he understood the extent to which the existing social system is unjust and he insisted on the necessity of closing the gap between masters and slaves. At the same time, the views developed by Frederick Douglass reflect a long-lasting discussion concerning master-slave relationships. In this respect, it should be said that many philosophers developed their own views on this problem, including Marx, Hegel, Nietzsche and others. In this respect, Frederick Douglass was not only another philosopher who attempted to interpret the master-slave relationship but he also knew what it meant to be a slave or a master from his personal experience and, in this regard, his participation in the abolitionist movement may be viewed as an implementation of Marx’s postulate that philosophers should not only interpret the world, but they should change it. In fact, this was exactly what Frederick Douglass had attempted to during his lifetime and his literary work and social activities aimed at the promotion of abolitionist ideas and their implementation in the real life. On the other hand, it should be said that, in spite of the position of Frederick Douglass concerning masters and slaves, views of other philosophers on this problem varied consistently from the total antagonism of masters and slaves to the inevitability of their coexistence.

In actuality, Frederick Douglass is renowned for his abolitionist works. However, it is worth mentioning that many of his literary works are based on his personal experience. In this respect, it is possible to refer to one of the most popular works written by Frederick Douglass “My Bondage and My Freedom”¯, which is the expansion of his early work “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”¯. Both these works are autobiographical and reveal the life of Frederick Douglass. At the same time, “My Bondage and My Freedom”¯ is more extensive work compared to “The Narrative”¯ because in this work the author reflects on his experience of being a slave, on his liberation and on the relationship between masters and slaves. In fact, he attempt to understand the position of both masters and slaves, he wants to understand their philosophy and mentality to explain their behavior which may seem to be illogical or irrational at first glance. For instance, it is obvious that all people are born free and its unnatural when some people exploit others or, what is more, treat them as commodities. However, Frederick Douglass witnessed and experienced such a treatment from the part of his masters and overseers, who treated him and other slaves as commodities, as things deprived of human spirit, feelings and emotions.

In this respect, it is possible to refer to the chapters of the books where Frederick Douglass describes the treatment of slaves by their masters. He describes numerous examples of violent, extremely offensive and inhuman attitude of masters to their slaves. The physical violence and punishment became a norm in the relationship of masters and slaves. In this regard, Frederick Douglass remarks a bit ironically that corporate punishment was a norm, and a master was viewed as punitive father whose will salves could not oppose. In such a context he describes “a regular whipping, such as any heedless or mischievous boy might get from his father”¯ (Douglass, 130). In such a way, the author shows that the corporate punishment and violence could have been perceived as natural process by both masters and slaves.

On the other hand, it is obvious that such a view on the punishment as well as the relationship of slaves and masters is absolutely unjust and unnatural. Obviously, the master punishing his slaves cannot be treated as a father since his only goal is to keep slaves obedient and force them to do the work the master needs to be done. Furthermore, Frederick Douglass words in the main principle which defines the attitude of masters to slaves: “acting always up to the maxim, practically maintained by slaveholders, that it is better that a dozen slaves suffered under the lash, without fault, than that the master or the overseer should seem to have been wrong in the presence of the slave.

Everything must be absolute here”¯ (Douglass, 121). In such a way, the author reveals the essence of the attitude of masters to their slaves, who are treated as commodities. In fact, at the epoch of Frederick Douglass, slaves were deprived of any rights at all, while masters were the only people who have rights over their slaves. Hence, they could decide the fate of their slaves, they could punish or even murder them without any limitations from the part of the law. In such a situation, the author rebels against such an unjust system and he opposes to the slavery. At first, he escapes and then he continues his abolitionist work as a freeman.

Nevertheless, his life is rather an exception than a norm, because, in his book, he proves the fact that the relationship between masters and slaves based on the principle of the absolute power of master over slaves was taken for granted not by masters but also by slaves. At the same time, the author attempts to explain the existence of such system, through understanding of the position of masters and slaves. The latter were apparently terrorized by their masters and, being deprived of any education, they proved to be unable to resist to the oppression and exploitation from the part of their masters. They simply lived according to rules and norms established by masters.

In such a situation, the logical question arises: why, then, were masters so offensive and cruel in relation to their slaves? Frederick Douglass finds the answer in the essence of the slavery system which was based on the total control and obedience of slaves to their masters and overseers. To put it more precisely, he argues that masters stood on the ground that “if one slave refused to be corrected, and was allowed to escape with his life, when he had been told that he should lose it if he persisted in his course, the other slaves would soon copy his example, the result of which would be, the freedom of the slaves, and the enslavement of the whites”¯ (Douglass, 123-124). Hence, it is obvious that the treatment of slaves as commodities and their oppression were perceived by masters as an essential measure which maintained the entire slavery system. Otherwise, the system would be ruined if slaves grew disobedient and escaped from their masters. Moreover, the latter master viewed as a threat to their own freedom and independence. This means that the relationship of masters and slaves was based on the antagonistic struggle in which there is no room for equal relationship between people but there is only the relationship of the master and slave. At any rate, this principle works in the society where the slavery system persists, which was described by Frederick Douglass in his book.

However, Frederick Douglass rejects such unjust system and he defends abolitionism as the way to the liberation of slaves, which can have consistently more significant effects than the freedom of slaves proper. In fact, the destruction of the slavery system would imply larger opportunities for the creation of a new society of people where all people are free and equal. At any rate, without slavery there are no threats to the position of former masters or to the position of former slaves. As long as slavery persists the equality is impossible. However, at this point, Frederick Douglass raises another serious obstacle to the formation of democratic society of equal people ”“ racial issues. To put it more precisely, he argues that black slaves as well as freemen were treated as a potential threat to the whites: the colored man, there, must not only shun evil, but shun the very appearance of evil, or be condemned as a criminal. A slaveholding community has a peculiar taste for ferreting out offenses against the salve system, justice there being more sensitive in its regard for the peculiar rights of this system, than for any other interest or institution”¯ (Douglass, 322). Consequently, Douglass shows that the slavery system is unjust and discriminatory that prevents the system from being objective in its attitude to salves or representatives of the non-white community. In such a way, the abolition of slavery is the only way to the elimination of injustice and discrimination in the society and establishment of principles of equality and justice.

Obviously, the idea of Frederick Douglass concerning the abolition was revolutionary at his epoch. In this regard, his views are similar to those of Marx, who also argued that the social revolution is essential for the liberation of the exploited class and overthrowing of the ruling class. In fact, he viewed the class of workers as a class enslaved by the bourgeoisie, which, in its turn, represented the class of masters. Remarkably, Marx viewed the two classes as antagonistic and their struggle was an essential part of human history and development of human society. In order to understand, Marx’s views on the relationship of these two classes of masters and slaves, it is possible to one of his fundamental works -“The Communist Manifesto”¯, written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in 1848. This work is the program document of the communist movement which actually reveals the essence of Marx’s views on social relations as well as master-slave relationships. In fact, this work is the one of the major document which may be viewed as the program of communists conveying basic communist ideas to the wide audience, ultimate goals of communism and the ways of their achievement.

First of all, it should be said that “The Communist Manifesto”¯ is one of the most influential political tracts. The manifesto begins with the metaphoric comparison of communism to a spirit that is haunting Europe. In such a way, the authors indicate to the fact that communism is growing to be widely spread in Europe and its ideas grow more and more popular among the progressive part of Europeans. On the other hand, communism remains unclear and misunderstood by Europeans. In fact, the authors argue that people have some inexplicable fear in face of communism even though they do not know the essence of this movement and its basic ideas. In such a way, the authors introduce the subject of their manifesto and define the purpose of its creation ”“ to make communism understandable for Europeans and emphasize the inevitability of its victory.

Marx and Engels argue that it is because of the dominant classes that oppress the society communist ideas are perceived as hostile to Europeans. They underline that the major goal of communism is the creation of the classless society, where all people are equal and there is no room for oppression and exploitation. In contrast to such an idealized communist society, they depict the existing society and reveal the sufferings of huge masses of people governed by a limited, privileged group, or class that rules the entire society and dominates in economic, political, and social life.

The authors point out that the ultimate goal of communism is to change the existing social order radically by means of social revolution. According to Marx and Engels, the social revolution should lead to the overthrown of the ruling elite, the class of those who concentrate economic and, therefore, political power in their hands. At the same time, they indicate to the fact that the ruling elite maintains its dominant position basically due to the right to private property, which is considered to be sacred in Europe. As a result, millions of working people, being deprived of any property, are forced to work for a little class of owners. Naturally, such a situation is unjust and the authors argue that social revolution and the establishment of communism will bring happiness to all working people or, to put it more precisely, to all people that do not exploit others.

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