To date, only a handful of scholars, most notably C.L.R. James and Eugene Genovese, have seen slave rebellions and peasant revolts as having anything in common. Fewer scholars still would be prepared to accept the assumption that slaves and peasants were agrarian working classes that shared significant characteristics. Yet, the issues of rural unrest and class formation continue to haunt the historiography of both slave and peasant societies long after James' and Genovese's studies, and have forced several historians to revise and broaden their definitions of class conflict as a means to describe the social transformations of several rural regions. In this essay, I focus on the American South as a case study of a slave society and on the Italian South, or Mezzogiorno, as a case study of a peasant society. Notwithstanding the fundamental differences between the social structures of these two regions, in both cases debates on the class character of rural workers began when leftist historians raised the possibility of applying Marxist categories to their particular historical conditions. In both cases, they were dealing with a ‘south’ characterized by a preeminently agricultural economy and a persistent social and political conservatism. In both cases, too, the debate has moved from broad theoretical positions to the explanation of specific instances of class conflict in a rural setting—the slaves' resistance to their masters and the peasants' resistance to their landlords, respectively—and then on to a criticism of the Marxist approach to the problem.
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