[Marxism] Eric Foner review of new Robin Blackburn book on slavery

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Aug 11 09:26:26 MDT 2011

(I scanned briefly through Robin Blackburn's new book a couple of 
weeks ago and got the impression that it disassociated itself from 
the Eric Williams thesis connecting slavery to capitalism. It even 
offers a brief recapitulation of the Dobb/Brenner analysis of 
changes in the British countryside to counter this view. Foner's 
review of the book confirms my initial impression.)


Inhuman Bondage: On Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights
Eric Foner | August 10, 2011

This past spring, television viewers in Britain were treated to a 
six-part series called Civilization about the rise (and possible 
fall, if China has its way) of the West, hosted by the historian 
Niall Ferguson. The series offered a highly reductive version of 
history, identifying “the West” with qualities such as 
competition, scientific inquiry and the rule of law, and 
denigrating societies from Asia to the Middle East and Latin 
America for lacking these virtues. In effect, it provided a usable 
past for those who see the world as riven by a clash of civilizations.

One episode explored why after independence, the United States 
forged ahead economically while the nations of Latin America 
stagnated. In an unusual twist, Ferguson chose South Carolina, a 
state governed by a tight-knit planter oligarchy, as a model of 
Jeffersonian democracy resting on small property ownership, in 
contrast to the autocratic societies south of the border organized 
around large latifundia. Only after forty-five minutes of the 
one-hour show did Ferguson mention the existence of slaves—the 
majority of South Carolina’s population. When slavery was finally 
discussed, it was presented not as a crucial structural feature of 
early American society but as a moral dilemma, an “original sin” 
expiated by the election of Barack Obama.

Among the many virtues of Robin Blackburn’s The American Crucible 
is its demonstration that slavery must be at the center of any 
account of Western ascendancy. Without the colonization of the New 
World, Blackburn notes at the outset, the West as we know it would 
not exist, and without slavery there could have been no 
colonization. Between 1500 and 1820, African slaves constituted 
about 80 percent of those who crossed the Atlantic from east to 
west. More than any other institution, the slave plantation 
underpinned the extraordinary expansion of Western power and the 
region’s prosperity in relation to the rest of the world.

In two earlier books, The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery (1988) and 
The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to Modern 
(1997), Blackburn traced the creation of New World slavery and its 
abolition in the British, French and Spanish empires, covering the 
years to 1848. These works established him as one of the foremost 
scholars of slavery as an international institution. Blackburn 
then took a detour to write two prescient volumes on the looming 
crisis in pension funding, which had somehow escaped the notice of 
bankers and credit rating agencies. In part, The American Crucible 
summarizes his earlier volumes; but it goes well beyond them, 
drawing on recent scholarship to amplify his previous arguments 
about slavery’s rise and fall and taking the story to around 1900. 
He explores emancipation in the nineteenth century’s three 
greatest slave systems—those of the United States, Cuba and 
Brazil. The book is an outstanding example of a major trend in 
recent historical writing: looking beyond national boundaries in 
favor of Atlantic or transnational history. Yet Blackburn cautions 
that while both the growth and abolition of slavery were 
international processes, they took place “in national histories” 
and followed no single pattern or path. With its theoretical 
sophistication and combination of a broad international approach 
and careful attention to local circumstances, The American 
Crucible takes its place alongside David Brion Davis’s Inhuman 
Bondage as one of the finest one-volume histories of the rise and 
fall of modern slavery.

Blackburn emphasizes that far from being static, New World slavery 
was a constantly evolving institution, and he identifies three 
broad eras in its history. In the first, which he dates from about 
1500 to 1650, slavery was centered in the Spanish colonies, 
small-scale and urban-based. By 1630 half the population of the 
great colonial cities Lima, Havana and Mexico City consisted of 
African slaves and their descendants. But in the countryside, in 
the silver and gold mines that enriched the Spanish crown and on 
the haciendas ruled by powerful colonial settlers, the indigenous 
population performed most of the labor.

At the time, the Spanish Empire lacked an extensive plantation 
system. That system developed first in Brazil and then quickly 
spread to the British and French colonies of the Caribbean and 
mainland North America, launching the second era of modern 
slavery’s history (1650–1800). Sugar and tobacco produced by slave 
labor, along with African slaves themselves, 6 million of whom 
were transported across the Atlantic in the eighteenth century, 
became key commodities of international commerce. Sugar was the 
first mass-marketed product in human history. By 1770 colonial 
exports and re-exports, mostly of slave-produced goods, 
represented between a third and a half of Atlantic trade. The 
profits swelled merchants’ coffers and the treasuries of European 
nation-states. By this time, too, the slave plantation had become 
a highly versatile economic unit, well adapted to the demands of 
the capitalist marketplace and quite modern in its methods of 
production, marketing and credit arrangements. Far from a 
retrograde drag on economic development, slavery was “a sinew of 
national strength” and of economic prosperity.

During this second era, slavery came to play a central role in key 
features of Western economic development—the spread of market 
relations, industrialization and the rise of a consumer economy. 
Carefully examining the old debate about the relationship between 
slavery and the Industrial Revolution, Blackburn concludes that 
the vast accumulation of capital derived from slave labor was a 
necessary, but not sufficient, cause of industrialization. Such 
profits did not boost manufacturing development in Spain and 
Portugal. Industrialization required not only money but a large 
home market and a supportive state, both of which only late 
eighteenth-century Britain possessed. Once it got under way, 
industrialization spurred the further growth of slavery, creating 
a giant market for cotton from the American South and fueling the 
spread of a “commodity-based notion of freedom,” in which ordinary 
consumers demanded more and more of the sugar, tobacco, rum and 
coffee produced on slave plantations.

* * *

In the nineteenth century, slavery entered its third era, one rife 
with contradictions. During the century’s first four decades, 
Haiti, born of a slave revolution, emerged as the hemisphere’s 
second independent republic, and the northern United States, the 
independent nations of Latin America and the British Empire began 
taking steps toward abolition. Yet Blackburn cautions against the 
idea of a preordained, “irresistible advance” toward emancipation. 
Even as slavery died elsewhere, it thrived in Brazil, Cuba and the 
American South. Indeed, in 1860, on the eve of the American Civil 
War, far more slaves (around 6 million) resided in the Western 
Hemisphere than ever before. And slave-grown products (Cuban 
sugar, Brazilian coffee, American cotton) played a greater role 
than ever in the new economy of mass consumption. By this time, to 
be sure, industry had outstripped plantation slavery in supplying 
goods for the consumer marketplace. But, Blackburn insists, no 
purely economic reason existed to prevent slave plantations from 
continuing to coexist with industrializing economies, supplying 
their demand for raw materials and consumer goods from the tropics.

Blackburn also rejects the idea that emancipation arose from what 
he calls “latent virtue,” a comforting notion sometimes invoked by 
American historians to excuse the founding fathers for lack of 
action against slavery on the grounds that their ideals set in 
motion the abolition process. High ideals alone did not abolish 
slavery. And while not neglecting slave agency, Blackburn argues 
that the concessions and customary rights wrested by slaves from 
their owners over a long period of day-to-day struggle did not 
pose a fundamental challenge to the system. Rather, he insists, 
emancipation emerged from specific historical circumstances—a 
nexus of slave resistance, ideological conflict and political crisis.

Blackburn examines in detail the myriad strains of antislavery 
thought—religious, nationalist, humanitarian, economic—and the 
abolitionists’ pioneering use of mass-produced pamphlets, 
lithographs, petitions and the like to spread their message. By 
the early decades of the nineteenth century, a genteel antislavery 
sentiment had become a hallmark of enlightened opinion on both 
sides of the Atlantic. But Blackburn is quick to note the limited 
accomplishments of respectable antislavery. Often, early 
emancipations consisted of “free womb” laws that ended slavery 
over a prolonged period by freeing future offspring, not living 
slaves. Moreover, in most times and places, abolitionists 
represented only a small minority of the free population. Only in 
times of crisis did abolitionists acquire the power to influence 
national policy.

It was not the slow accumulation of rights by slaves or the 
persuasiveness of antislavery arguments that produced emancipation 
but “revolutionary ruptures” and political crises. In 
revolutionary France, as well as in a Spanish Empire wracked by 
wars of colonial independence, a Britain beset by the crisis over 
parliamentary reform in the early 1830s and Civil War America, 
slave resistance suddenly gained new salience, and abolitionist 
arguments found a receptive audience among the general populace 
and political elites. As in his previous studies of slavery, 
Blackburn also insists that emancipation was closely connected to 
the state-building process. The act of abolition presupposed the 
existence of a new kind of state, one intolerant of the special 
local sovereignty of slave owners and capable of carrying out 
radical measures. It gave the state moral legitimacy, allowing it 
plausibly to claim to be the embodiment of liberty.

Blackburn offers an excellent account of the path toward 
emancipation in the United States and of Abraham Lincoln’s 
evolving attitudes and policies. The Civil War clearly exemplified 
the linkage of nineteenth-century nationalism with abolition, and 
the destruction of the hemisphere’s largest and most powerful 
slave system compelled Cuba and Brazil to reckon with their 
reliance on slavery. Spain enacted a free womb law for Cuba in 
1870, but abolition there, as elsewhere, also involved violence. 
About half the rebel army in the war of independence of the 1870s 
consisted of present or former slaves, and patriots demanded equal 
citizenship for all, regardless of race, in an independent Cuba. 
Slavery in Brazil finally ended in 1888, seemingly peacefully, 
although numerous slave revolts and the enlistment of thousands of 
slave soldiers in the war against Paraguay between 1865 and 1870 
preceded emancipation.

When it comes to the consequences of abolition, Blackburn presents 
a rather somber assessment. Antislavery ideas were always linked 
to notions of liberty and progress, but less often to racial 
equality. As they extended their empires across the globe in the 
late nineteenth century, European powers “claimed to be inspired 
by abolitionist principles” even when acting in blatantly racist 
ways. Everywhere in the Western Hemisphere, new systems of racial 
and labor subordination succeeded plantation slavery. 
Emancipation’s economic impact turned out to be less drastic than 
many had hoped or feared. The export value of the main 
crops—American cotton, Brazilian coffee and Cuban sugar—quickly 

Blackburn is particularly pessimistic about the postslavery United 
States, warning against a scholarly tendency to “exaggerate the 
gains made by former slaves and their descendants.” While 
acknowledging the remarkable effort during Reconstruction to 
create an interracial democracy in the South, he sees that era as 
a minor detour on the road to a new system of racial domination 
based on segregation, disenfranchisement and economic 
subordination. He goes so far as to say that in the entire 
hemisphere, “the blacks of the US South gained least from the 
ending of slavery.”

It is unclear what standard of comparison Blackburn is applying 
here, because, as he notes, postemancipation societies in general 
remained highly unequal. Despite its failure, Reconstruction 
closed off even more oppressive possibilities in the United 
States. Moreover, the rewriting of the laws and Constitution 
during Reconstruction to enshrine the idea of equal citizenship 
rights for blacks established the legal framework for subsequent 
challenges to the postemancipation racial regime. And the creation 
of autonomous black churches and schools put in place institutions 
that would serve as the strongholds for future struggles. Without 
attributing social change to “latent virtue,” one can note that 
unlike racial systems in other countries, the South’s Jim Crow 
laws remained regional, not national, and that options existed for 
American blacks not matched elsewhere, especially the possibility 
of migration to the North and West, where a different (though 
hardly egalitarian) racial system prevailed.

Slavery and emancipation form two of the three parts of 
Blackburn’s subtitle. The third, human rights, receives less 
attention but represents a new concern compared with his previous 
work. In part, Blackburn’s discussion is a response to recent 
scholarship by Lynn Hunt, who locates the origins of human rights 
consciousness in the Enlightenment and the French Revolution [see 
“On the Genealogy of Morals,” April 16, 2007], and Samuel Moyn, 
who situates the idea’s emergence much more recently, in the 1970s 
[see “Human Rights in History,” August 30/September 6, 2010]. 
Earlier definitions of human rights, Moyn points out, were tied to 
the nation-state, as the title of one key such document, the 
Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, makes clear. 
People enjoyed human rights by virtue of membership in a 
particular polity, not their common humanity. Only lately, Moyn 
claims, did the idea arise of human rights that transcend and 
challenge national sovereignty and are thus truly universal.

Blackburn acknowledges the force of Moyn’s argument and has no 
desire to create a selective and ahistorical genealogy of human 
rights. He insists, however, rightly in my view, that the 
abolitionist movement played a major role in developing the 
concept of human rights unbounded by race and nationality. “In the 
heat of these momentous clashes over slavery,” he writes, “a new 
notion of human freedom and human unity was proclaimed.” Indeed, 
the attack on slavery also involved a critique of the pretensions 
and power of the nation-states that protected and profited from 
the institution.

Unlike previous scholars, Blackburn places the slave uprising in 
St. Domingue—the richest of all the sugar colonies, which became 
the nation of Haiti—at the center of the early history of human 
rights. The Haitian revolution, he notes, is rarely given its due 
by historians. Half a century ago, R.R. Palmer wrote an acclaimed 
two-volume work, The Age of the Democratic Revolution, that barely 
mentioned Haiti. Lately, thanks in part to the bicentennial of 
Haitian independence in 2004, a spate of works have appeared. 
Drawing on this literature, Blackburn insists that the rebellious 
slaves profoundly affected Atlantic political culture and human 
rights consciousness. Not only did events in St. Domingue directly 
inspire the 1794 French decree abolishing slavery (later reversed 
by Napoleon); the revolutionary convention’s decision to seat 
black and brown delegates from the island marked a stunning 
affirmation that the entitlements of the Declaration of the Rights 
of Man were available to all French citizens, regardless of color.

Ironically, if “the West” is to celebrate the idea of universal 
human rights as one of its distinctive contributions to modern 
civilization, part of the credit must go to the mostly 
African-born slave rebels of Haiti.

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