Robin Blackburn on capitalism and slavery

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Fri Jul 4 12:28:20 MDT 2003

Weekly Worker 221 Thursday December 18 1997

Capitalism and slavery

This article is based on a speech given at Communist University '97 by
Robin Blackburn, author of 'The making of New World slavery'

The title of this article is, of course, an echo of the famous book of the
same name by Eric Williams, published in 1944.

There are not many books written 50 years ago that are still in print and
still being vigourously debated - especially those written under a Marxist
influence. Williams was a leader of the Trinidad national liberation
struggle. Unfortunately, in his later life he became a rather reactionary
prime minister, but that is another story. I take up and reconsider the
themes of Capitalism and slavery in my own work.

There has been a tendency to deny the connection between capitalism and
slavery on the part of bourgeois historians: that is why Williams' book
really stuck in their gullet - and they have been chewing over it ever
since it was published. There have been attempts to debunk him, and I try
in the long final chapter of my own book to show that the process of
primitive accumulation did decisively depend upon exchanges with the slave

For me, and I think for most Marxists, the connection between capitalism
and slavery is somewhat more surprising - and more problematic - than is
assumed by Williams. He was, as I have said, influenced by Marx, but he was
not really a Marxist: rather a nationalist in his formation and outlook.
Though he did some wonderful research and writes eloquently, he never
actually asked, 'Where does capitalism come from in the first place?' This
is, of course, a question of prime importance for Marxists right from
Volume 1 of Capital, through to the 1940s and '50s with the debates around
the 'transition to capitalism'.

Many contended that the origins of this remarkable mode of production lie
in the pre-colonial epoch; that Britain was already on the road to
capitalism at the time of the plantation revolution in the 17th century,
before the flourishing of the plantations in the 18th and 19th century. The
forms of a capitalist agriculture had already been established, and you
could argue therefore that the roots of capitalism go all the way back to
the 15th, and certainly the 16th, century.

I think you could say that, although there are many standpoints represented
here, all sides in the debates realise that slavery - in the sense of
chattel slavery - had died out in western Europe at the time of the
transition to capitalism in the 15th and 16th century.

One could almost say that a precondition for the development of capitalism
was that there was a pool of formally free labour - formally free, because
these labourers did have to sell their labour power in order to survive and
in order to feed their family. They did have access to some means of
production - to common lands: they might have a small plot, but it was not
enough to make ends meet and to enable them to reproduce themselves. So
they had to sell their labour power to the incipient capitalist farmers.

These were usually tenant farmers and they had so-called 'improving leases'
which enabled them to invest in the means of production on their farms -
this made it rational, in competition with one another, to engage in
improvements, without being charged higher rates as a consequence. They had
an incentive to innovate.

A feature of wage labour was that it was identifiable in the cost of
production. The incentive to economise, to use improved means of
production, was provided by the fact that each separate unit of labour had
to be paid for. Previously the owners of serfs or slaves had an unlimited
supply in terms of the control of labour time on their property.

Despite the emergence of these free labourers in the European countries -
above all in England and some other parts of north-west Europe - these
employers were not capitalists yet. You can see from the Statute of
labourers - a vicious employers' and landlords' code - that there were
intense class struggles. However, new structures were coming into being
where capitalism and free labour could emerge.

This free labour did not necessarily have a capitalist sense of direction
to begin with, but it acquired it; primarily because of the competitive
relations between the different farmers and different landlords. The system
worked - so free labour flourished.

It was not the capitalists who invented free labour; it was at least to
some extent the struggles of the popular classes. Firstly, in collective
forms, in episodes like the Peasants' Revolt; and secondly, in the struggle
of individual direct producers to improve their lot; in their propensity to
areas where they were held as serfs or unfree labourers; to go to the towns.

Towns throughout Europe were at this time beginning to adopt the 'free air
doctrine'. If you escaped to Bristol or Sheffield - or Bologna or Toulouse
- for a year and a day, you became free.

As far as the municipalities were concerned, this was a good way of
attracting labour into the cities - and they were able to defend this
conquest against the few rules that existed. And gradually this notion of
the free air doctrine was adopted on a more wide-scale basis. Thomas More's
Utopia refers to social conditions which are really those of an early
capitalist country. He says that having lots of masterless men roaming the
countryside is very inconvenient, especially when some of them are
desperate. More proposes a vicious penal code, which is based on the
approach of 'three strikes and you're a slave' (the origin of that
particular phrase). It is a fascinating book, but it also projects a very
savage, dystopian image of a society prepared to use slavery as a sanction.


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