[PEN-L:3358] Re: Russell R. Menard on Eric Williams

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Sat Oct 21 06:46:53 MDT 2000

>I can't claim any familiarity with the details of this debate. It is worth
>being aware of an analytical possibility, however. It is altogether possible
>that the slave trade could be central to English industrialization --
>regardless of whether the profits from that trade were central or not. A core
>point is that *nations* do not make profits or accrue losses -- individuals,
>firms, groups, etc. do. Hence the total returns of X to a *nation* are not
>necessarily relevant to the question of the importance of X.

You really should make the effort to delve into the literature for the
simple reason that you always intervene in this dispute on email lists at
every opportunity. I would start with Robin Blackburn's 2 volume book on
slavery and the British Empire.


Robin Blackburn, "The Making of New World Slavery":

A tradition of British Marxist historiography — culminating in Eric
Hobsbawm’s Industry and Empire (1964) and Christopher Hill’s From
Reformation to Industrial Revolution (1968) — has argued that British
colonial expansion did indeed furnish crucial economic space for British
capitalist development. Writers in this tradition had no difficulty finding
seventeenth- and eighteenth-century statesmen and political economists who
urged colonial development on the grounds that it would boost the national
economy. The evidence of official statistics seemed to confirm the picture,
but a traditional view of this sort was bound to furnish the target for a
wave of revisionism. Approaches inspired by a variety of economic models —
classical, neoclassical and Marxist — came to reject the thesis that there
was a ‘primitive’ contribution to Britain’s industrialization; in some
quarters the problematic of a ‘primitive’ accumulation was itself deemed
primitive in conception. After all, Britain’s internal market had grown
rapidly in the seventeenth century, and was probably growing as fast as
foreign trade in the eighteenth.

Historians as different in their approach as Charles Kindleberger, a
neoclassical economic historian, Paul Bairoch, a neo-Physiocrat member of
the Annales school, and Robert Brenner, a Marxist, all challenged the view
that colonies or commerce made any decisive contribution to Britain’s
capitalist industrialization. The arguments they advanced appeared so
cogent that for much of the 1970s and 1980s they enjoyed a certain
hegemony.8 Bairoch contended, against Hobsbawm, that colonial markets and
profits made a very modest contribution to capital formation in Britain
during the Industrial Revolution, and that it was, rather, the
‘agricultural revolution’ of roughly 1660—1800 which opened up the space
for economic growth. Brenner, as a Marxist, argued that the decisive
moments of capitalist development were those which transformed social
relations in the West European countryside, and that no essential
contribution was made by colonial markets or by surplus extracted on the
slave plantations; in Brenner’s case it was the capitalist world-system
approach of Immanuel Wallerstein that furnished the object of his critique.

Historians of the slave systems in the Americas have had their own version
of the controversy over ‘primitive accumulation’ and the importance of
trade to capitalist development. The classic reference here is, of course,
Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery, first published in 1944 and seldom
out of print since. Its argument was placed within a broader framework by
the same author’s history of the Caribbean, From Columbus to Castro,
published in 1962. In the ensuing decades — and most particularly in the
l960s and 1970s — many challenges were mounted to Williams’s contention
that the profits of Britain’s ‘triangular trade’ with Africa and the West
Indies lent a major impulse to the Industrial Revolution. The so-called
'Williams thesis’ became the target of repeated attempts to show that
neither the Atlantic slave trade nor the plantation trades had made any
large or decisive contribution to British economic growth. In 1973 Roger
Anstey published a major investigation of Britain’s involvement in the
Atlantic slave trade, conceived as a comprehensive refutation of Williams’s

The putative contribution of colonial profits was challenged in a different
way by those who questioned whether an ‘industrial revolution’ had even
taken place in Britain in the eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries. New
calculations of British economic growth during this period suggested that
it was modest compared with modern, especially post-World War II, rates of
growth, and that it may have been similar to the rate of growth already
achieved in England in the seventeenth century. It could also be shown that
the growth of agriculture had made a large contribution to the advance of
overall output, for some time overshadowing the relatively small
manufacturing sector. But in fact the new models and new evidence did not
give good grounds for abandoning the idea of an ‘industrial revolution’,
while the new findings on trade, growth and capital formation actually
increase the significance of the colonial contribution, as we will see.
Britain was the first country to undergo an industrial transformation such
that the agricultural workforce was overtaken by urban or manufacturing
employment. The share of the male labour force in industry grew steadily:
18.5 per cent in 1688, 23.8 per cent in 1759, 29.5 per cent in 1801 and
47.3 per cent in 1847.10 Agriculture grew in absolute terms, but accounted
for a declining share of national income: 45 per cent in 1770, 33 per cent
in 1801 and 20 per cent in 1851.11

Such developments proved to be a watershed in human history, inaugurating a
new pattern of society. While agricultural advance helped to create the
space for structural change, industrialism and urbanism provided a
livelihood and a new pattern of life for the majority. Of course, the
Industrial Revolution itself took place against the highly unusual and
propitious background of a prior capitalist development and dramatic
advances in several sectors, many linked to the slave-based economy of the
Atlantic. This is, in fact, to be the theme of this chapter as it assesses
the colonial contribution as it affected markets, investment, institutions,
supplies, government and war. Fortunately, these dimensions of British
growth have attracted considerable research from historians of the
metropolis as well as the colonies... (clip)


There are many interesting graphs in Blackburn's chapter, but for brevity's
sake, I will only cite one which deals with British important of cotton,
essential to the textile industry. Without this raw material imported
mostly from the colonies and without the slaves to pick it, it is virtually
excluded that the British Empire could have been built.

Sources of British Cotton 1786/87 and 1796-1805

000 lb and %            1786/87         1796-1805

British West Indies     5,050 (25.4%)   8,114 (17%)
British-occupied W.I.   -               7,853 (16.5%)
Foreign W.I.            6,214 (31.3%)   944 (2.0%)
Brazil                  2,500 (12.6%)   7,971 (16.7%)
Louisiana               -               1,453 (3.0%)
USA (md. re-ex) -               14,978 (31.4%)
New World Total 13,764 (69.3%)  41,797 (87.8%)
Turkey (Smvrna) 6,000 (30.20%)  969 (2.0%)
East Indies             90 (0.5%)       5,171 (8.9%)
Grand Total             19,854          47,631

Louis Proyect
Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org/

More information about the Marxism mailing list