Capitalism, slavery and the Brenner thesis

Richard Harris rhh1 at
Mon Aug 25 09:12:36 MDT 2003

Date: Mon, 25 Aug 2003 00:15:23 -0500
From: "LouPaulsen" <LouPaulsen at>
Subject: Re: Capitalism, slavery and the Brenner thesis

... there is something wrong at least with the particular version of the
stage theory of history with which we are
all familiar, according to which first there was "ancient society", whatever
that was, then "slave society", then "feudalism", then "capitalism", each
with its own distinct mode of production antagonistic to the previous and
subsequent modes, and with its own ruling class which came to power in
struggle against the previous ruling class.

In the first place, you can have capitalist society with French capitalists
and French
proletarians, and you can have feudal society with French lords and French
serfs, but it is NOT the rule to have had slave society with slaveholders
and slaves of the same nationality.


Roman slave society was not discriminating between 'national' origins.
People from Britannia or Egyptus could both be slaves and senators (both
occurred.)  The way Roman authors used 'natio' to refer to groups is well
explained in:

Geary, P (2003) The Myth of Nations:  The medieval origins of Europe
Princeton University Press

In the later empire, when citizenship was extended to all, all slaves could
be citizens (except for their
slavery.)  I don't think ethnicity has any significant role in Roman
society.  The Severine dynasty, it seems generally agreed, were black people
from Africa.  Never a comment on their colour or 'foreign' origin in the
literature of the time.  What has colour or nation or
place of birth to do with anything?  The early Roman republic was different,
of course.  But Byzantium wasn't.

Don't forget that, according to St-Croix, the western empire imploded
because slaves and poor peasants preferred the barbarians to the exactions
of the empire.  Nation, race had no role.  The class system was what
fundamentally counted.

And the Athenians did not scruple at enslaving other greek speaking peoples
who opposed them (I don't think the ancient greek speaking world had the
notion of 'nation.'  Membership of a polis, yes, but that was different.

Ah, French lords.  Henry II of England was a French lord who held fiefs from
the King of France (who was much less powerful in 'France' - an
anachronism - that the King of France.  Often, Kings of France were in their
turn vassals to the English King for some of their lands.  The growth of the
nation state in Europe is closely tied to the rise of Capital.  England is
the only one that really fitted the ideal - a territory and a 'people'
(hence the endless Tudor myths of King Brutus founding the nation - all
trash and lies, of course), the flat lands in an island, the flat lands
conquered as a unity in 1066 by French Lords (or were they Norwegians and

Also see:

Carvalli-Sforza, L (2001)  Genes people and languages
University of California Press

for a stunning attack on the idea of races, nations, ethnic groups and other
such entities as anything but recent social constructs (at least for
Europe), straight from the cess-pit of human alienation (which Marx's
politics requires us to leave behind.)

Marx's model of personal dependence, personal independence based upon a
dependence upon things, and 'free association' strikes me as much more
successful than the periodisation LP cites, and can accommodate the elements
of that model.  Hal Draper discusses this, I think correctly, at some



... slavery is not an
'early' or 'primitive' system at all!  It is something that goes hand in
hand with empire, long-range trade, a money economy, international traffic
in commodities, and so on.

Richard :

Exactly and a very good insight


I think the whole idea within Marxism that slavery is an 'early' system
comes from ideas about Egypt, Greece, and Rome which were current in
19th-century scholarship but which don't hold water today, such as the
notion that the pyramids were built by slaves which is based largely on
books of Genesis and Exodus.  In fact, the lesson of history is that if a
society wants to acquire a lot of slave labor, it first has to advance to
its highest point economically and technologically so that it can go out
make war successfully and capture the slaves.  Doing that has generally
meant advancing into a money economy, even manufacture, that is to say to
the edge of capitalism and arguably even into capitalism.  The history of
slavery in Rome is quite on point.  Rome didn't become a "slave society"
until it had first developed a lot of advanced features,
merchant-capitalist features, which enabled it to subdue Greece and Asia
Minor and take their
populations captive.


But merchant capital isn't 'capital' in Marx's developed sense.  It is
capital in Adam
Smith's sense.  Marx radically reread concepts such as capital which he
found in
the political economists.  They asked how does the cycle m-c-m+ occur?  In a
mercantilist system, the answer is to do with trade between markets.  Marx,
we know, thought the capitalist mode of production different from
mercantilism, and the increment in m, the surplus, due to a different
source, the exploitation of wage-labour.

That is, merchant capital is not capitalism.

The populations of Greece and Asia Minor were never enslaved but in small
numbers.  The scholars I have read never think any more than any other land.
Libya, Rome's bread basket, was the main territory worked by slaves, as also
the latifundiae (large farms in Italy.)



However, if you look at what the southern slave-owners were actually doing
with their time and money, I think you have to conclude that they were
investing money and producing commodities according to the laws of the
capitalist market.


Yes, very clearly put.



All capitalists buy labor-power and turn it to the
production of commodities, and the southern slave-owner was doing exactly
that.  The only difference is who it was bought FROM.


No, finance capitalists and merchant capitalists do not buy labour power for
the production of commodities, neither do landlords or rentiers.
Wage-labour commodity production is, of course, at the root of the system.
But it is a mistake to take this system wide idea and to use it on the local
scale.  The issue is that the monies invested in a slave plantation was a
block of income-producing capital, functioning in the conditions of the
world capitalist system.  The profits that accrued to that capital come from
the world wide working class, distributed to capitals by the market.  I
think LP here is very close to Ricardo's objectified labour theory of value,
seeing the profits of the slave owners as being the value of the embodied
labour of their slaves (but I might have misread him.)  But that is not
Marx's theory of profits.

Let us suppose I develop a flock of nano-robots.  They could be set lose on
a farm I rent in Virginia.  They plant tobacco and grow a crop.  They
perform all the labour tasks associated with turning the tobacco into
commodity tobacco & getting it to a railway siding where it is  passed into
the charge of railway company employees.  They arrange its sale to a
commodity merchant.

I have no variable capital costs.  On LP's account I am therefore not a
capitalist.  The value of previously expended human labour is represented by
the capital monies I invest.  I just have these capital costs (including
fixed capital costs of various turnover times.)  Do my products scoop part
of the world surplus?  If the price is right, of course. So my capital has
exploited other capitals' workers.  Just as merchant capital, finance
capital etc do within the developed world capitalist system.  The market
distributes the surplus.

In my example, I am a capital within the capitalist mode of production.  But
all capitals cannot copy me, as capital depends upon exploiting wage labour.
That would be the end of the system.  The nano-robot farm is a death knell.
Melvin P has that insight.


More information about the Marxism mailing list