Debating slavery: Marx's discussion

Graham graham at
Sun Oct 22 13:02:30 MDT 2000

Is there a case for treating slavery as transhistorical; i.e. being possible in
all forms of society, yet taking on specific forms under capitalism, feudalism
etc.? For instance, while the Nazis' use of slave labour was barbaric - and
evidence of capitalism's failure in the 30s - it did not represent a reversion
to feudalism. Likewise, there is also a good case for treating our perceptions
of slavery in an equally historically specific fashion.  In one of the best
chapters of Ellen Meiksins Wood's _Democracy Against Capitalism_, she shows how
Victorian historians became fixated with the fall of ancient Rome (and the role
of slavery within the Roman Empire) as a reactionary way of discussing
decadence/degeneration in late C19th Europe. If way stay historically specific,
we can afford to be relaxed about the evidence that remains showing some slaves
tolerated their situation and spoke of masters who were kind, generous etc.  The
WPA testimonies, some of which are collected as _Bullwhip Days: The Slaves
Remember_ (ed. James Mellon, NY: Avon, 1988), are not a fabrication.  They show
a range of responses to slavery by slaves. The question of how significant was
the 'consensus' built up by individual owners can be answered if we make it
clear that slavery as a social formation was based primarily on force, no matter
what the individual oral histories say. Graham Barnfield Fax. +44 (0)870 7345198
Editor, Culture Matters CMCRC strand PS. _Debating Slavery_ the
book may well have some influence in academia, as Cambridge Uni press (I think)
were pushing it quite hard as an undergraduate text book early last year.  

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