[Marxism] 'The Many-Headed Hydra': An Exchange | by David Brion Davis | The New York Review of Books

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Aug 20 12:16:32 MDT 2018

On 8/20/18 1:54 PM, Michael Meeropol wrote:
> I know Peter Linebaugh from Swarthmore --- he's a VERY SERIOUS historian ---
> Unfortunately, reading the exchange, I cannot really tell if their 
> "errors" are as "bad" as Davis asserts ----
> As E.H. Carr pretty much proved in WHAT IS HISTORY? --- there is really 
> no "certitude" about the MEANING of even "simple" facts ---
> --- so when one disputes facts, that is often not the same thing as 
> disproving an interpretation ....
> One guy got it right -- "history is an argument without end ...."  (he 
> was a guy, by the way!)

This will give you a good idea of where David Brion Davis is coming 
from. His dismissal of Eric Williams below, followed by others, were 
rebutted by Cedric Robinson in this JSTOR article. Anybody interested in 
a copy should contact me privately at lnp3 at panix.com.

History Workshop, No. 23 (Spring, 1987)
Capitalism, Slavery and Bourgeois Historiography
by Cedric J. Robinson

Forty years ago, in his brilliant, provocative, and enormously 
influential Capitalism and Slavery, Eric Williams maintained that the 
wealth produced by the slave trade and by black slave labor in the 
colonies provided the capital that financed the British industrial 
revolution. Historians and economists have discredited this thesis by 
showing that even on the basis of the most generous calculations, the 
combined profits from the slave trade and West Indian plantations could 
not have come to 5 per cent of the British national income at a time 
when planters were prospering and the industrial revolution was getting 
under way.

--David Brion Davis (1984)

... Eric Williams's hypothesis that capital which derived from the 
profits of West Indian slavery fuelled Britain's Industrial Revolution 
has now been discredited.

--J. Morgan Kousser (1985)

... the thesis of Eric Williams ... that New World slavery provided the 
capital that financed the Industrial Revolution in Britain [is an] 
untenable proposition ...

--(Sir) M.I. Finley (1985)

The late Eric Williams may have gone too far in his celebrated argument 
that the rise of capitalism itself could be largely accounted for by the 
enormous profits generated by the slave systems of the Americas. But no 
one now doubts that New World slavery was a key factor in the rise of 
the West European economies.

--Orlando Patterson (1984)

On the basis of such apparently good authority, one might easily assume 
that whatever Eric Williams intended to demonstrate forty long years 
ago, he did not. Nevertheless some caution would be warranted. First, it 
is a bit disconcerting that there should be such fundamental 
disagreement among those authorities on precisely what Williams's 
subject was. Though they approximate to one another in their 
terminology, their criticisms only appear to be equivalents: the British 
industrial revolution does not coincide with the rise of capitalism; nor 
do the 'profits of West Indian slavery' equate with the 'wealth produced 
by the slave trade and black slave labor'. These critics differ not only 
in their historical architectures but in their economies as well. Worse 
still, as we shall discover, there is only the slightest resemblance 
between these assertions and what Williams actually maintained.

This essay will take up each of these matters in its proper course. 
Eventually we must also inquire why it has been so important to 
'discredit' Williams in the first instance. This, too, we shall find is 
not a simple matter since the circumstances and motives behind the 
(successive) discreditations have differed. But granted for the moment 
the delinquencies of his critics, the place to start is with Williams 

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