Slavery chained to the rise of capitalism

13 08 2013

Barry Biddulph reviews, The making of New World Slavery, Robin Blackburn,Verso, (London and New York, 2010 )

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Robin Blackburn’s  view of plantation slavery, based on a formidable amount of historical research,  is that it was an integral part of the development of Industrial Capitalism .  Black slavery in the Caribbean was a hybrid form of capitalism, a racist by-product of the transition to industrial Capitalism in Europe.  The circuits of capitalist production in western Europe,  presupposed a previous or primitive accumulation of Capital. In the words of Karl Marx : “the conversion of Africa into a preserve of the commercial hunting of black skins are all things which characterize the dawn of the era of Capitalist production”. (1) If wage labour is a hidden form of slavery, it was consolidated by an open racial slavery.

Eric Williams, as early as 1944, pioneered  the view that the slave Plantations in the West Indies were closely tied to the development of industrial capitalism in Britain and elsewhere in Europe.  Williams, ” did quite correctly identify the great intimacy between the surge of a slave produce, and trading on the one hand, and British capitalist development on the other”.  (2)  Robin Blackburn acknowledges the insights of Williams, but is able to base himself on decades of further research and debate.   His conclusion is that Plantation Slavery was not a historical hangover from the pre capitalist past, but a social and economic hybrid : an  extension of mercantile ,financial and manufacturing capital in the European metropolis, in a time of a transition to industrial capitalism.

In  Blackburn’s own words, the Slave plantations “were set up directly for supplying the European market,and had no other raison d’ etre”. (3) They were integrated into global networks of trade, commerce and finance. The planters acquired  equipment ,commodities, credit,  and African Slaves from the market. The logic of the plantations were not strictly speaking capitalist, but planters calculated profit and loss in their market trading.  Indeed, according to the Scottish historian Tom Devine : ” The credit structures linked to the plantation economy were crucial elements in the UK financial markets” (4) This comment brings out the connection to the growth of British industrialism.

Eric Williams described it as Britain’s triangular trade, which does simplify the complexities of the commercial pattern involved, but at the heart of it was manufactured goods shipped to Africa, buying captured African slaves and taking them to the Caribbean, to be resold into plantation slavery, and then carrying a cargo of sugar or other exotic produce to North America and Britain. Robin Blackburn’s estimates, from the research he surveys is “that profits derived from the triangular trade could have furnished anything from 20.9% to 55% of Britain’s gross fixed Capital formation in 1770″ (5) The secret of the original accumulation can be seen in the images of Robinson Crusoe, and the glamorous Glasgow Tobacco Lords strutting along the streets of the Empire’s second city, in  scarlet cloaks and gold tipped walking canes. The secret is their wealth was based on African people’s forced labour.

Robin Blackburn does not think slavery was organised maliciousness ,intended to punish those with black skins, but obviously “without racist assumptions the Atlantic trade would not have been permitted”. (6) Robin probably understates the racism involved, in making the case that plantation slavery was a rational quasi capitalist organisation. Barbara Bush makes the general point that,”the modern concept of race coalesced through contact with Africa and slavery between the sixteenth and nineteenth Centuries”.  (7) Linda Colley wants to play down the contrast between black victims and white slave traders. Although she is quick to state that white victims of captivity and slavery were not comparable with black slavery. Yet, she does go some way towards that view when she insists that the neat division of black victims and white perpetrators gives”insufficient attention to Ottoman and North Africa slave, and forced Labour systems”. (8)

Colley also throws in for good measure, the argument that people in Britain were treated badly in this period: Cromwell enslaved Scots in 1650 and what about the savage treatment of the Monmoth Rebels. Put this together with white slaves on the Barbary coast and we get the impression that this was the way of the world at the time, blunting any critique of Capitalist barbarism. Blackburn does engage in polemic ,in the footnotes, with the apologetics of historian David Eltis. Eltis argues that New World Slavery was not unrestrained. The western slave powers did not enslave their own people. This was a gain for humanity in western Europe. Presumably, this was the best that could be expected at the time : the best of what existed justifies the worst. To use Blackburn’s phrase : a perverse view.  (9)

Against David Eltis, Blackburn makes the obvious point that “there was economic and social progress in the Netherlands,England, and some parts of Western Europe precisely because they were not mired in  an East European morass of peasant servitude”. ( 10) There had been no peasantry in the countryside in England for a considerable historical period. The agricultural labourers had been separated from the means of production, and the means of subsistence. There had been enclosure of the commons, with wealthy landowners owning huge estates, operating as agricultural capitalists. In short, the growth of modern commercial society. The State in England had been modernised with the so-called English revolution in the 1640’s and consolidated by the revolution of 1688. As Alex Callinico notes this “allowed capitalist interests dominate.” (11)

The scale of African Slavery can be glimpsed by the rough estimates of the number of slaves transported from Africa provided by Blackburn: 370,000 in the Sixteenth century,rising to over one and a half million in the Seventeenth century and then to over three million in the Eighteenth century. Arguably the slavery in the British West Indies was the most exploitative and oppressive in the new world. Robin Blackburn’s research convincingly demonstrates the link between unfree labour in the West Indies and South America and capitalism  in the European  heartland.   Unfree labour still exits to this day in some parts of the world, providing  cheap goods for Western Capitalists to make super profits.  Capitalism and racism are still tied together.


1 Karl Marx, Capital Vol 1, Penguin Books, ( Aylesbury 1976 ) p.925. Also from the same page Marx adds “in fact the veiled slavery of the wage labourers in Europe needed the unqualified slavery of the New World as its pedestal”.

2 Robin Blackburn, The American Crucible, Verso, (London and New York 2011) p. 101

3 Robin Blackburn, The Making of New World Slavery, verso ( London and New York 2010) p. 374

4 Tom M Devine, Scotland’s Empire 1600-1815, Penguin Books, ( London 2004 ) p. 221

5 Robin Blackburn, The Making of New world Slavery, p. 542. The rise of the Plantation originated in Brazil in 1580, but in a sustained way in British and French plantations from the 1650’s. The British State seized Jamaica in 1655, and Barbados earlier in 1627.

6 ibid,p.350

7 Barbara Bush,Imperialism and Post Colonialism, Pearson Longman, ( Edinburgh) 2006,p. 29

8 Linda Colley, Captives. Britain, Empire and the World,1600-1850,Pimlico, (London 20002 ) p.63

9 Blackburn’s other correct argument is that it would not have been possible to use mass slave labour from Britain, Holland and France at the time. And the fact is Black slave labour was used.

10 Robin Blackburn,  ibid, p.361

11 Alex Callinicos, Imperialism and Global Political Economy, Polity, (Cambridge 2009) p.132

radicalism and socialism in the first international

22 02 2012

Deborah Lavin, Bradlaugh Contra Marx, Radicalism and Socialism in the First International, Socialist History Society, London 2011, 86 pages paperback, 9780955513848, £4. Reviewed by Terry Liddle.

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Nostalgia for old Labour

2 02 2012

Barry Biddulph reviews , Owen Jones, Chavs : The Demonization of the Working Class, (Verso 14.99) 

Owen Jones describes how hatred of the working class finds expression in  negative images and gross exaggerations and distortions of working class experience in the media. It’s the myth that we are all middle class except the chavs. Owen explains how the mockery of the working class demonstrates their social inferiority for their tormentors and superiors. It’s a culture which blames the victims rather than social injustice or structured social inequality in capitalism. It’s the way the “working class rump” lives that’s seen as the problem. But what is Owen’s alternative?
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the iron lady: not the war horse she’s cracked up to be

7 01 2012

David Broder went to see The Iron Lady, with Meryl Streep starring as Margaret Thatcher

After the adverts for the merits of cinema advertising, and the adverts for the cinema itself, came a trailer for War Horse. Based on Michael Morpurgo’s novel, this is a film about a horse from a humble farm who is deployed for use in World War I, runs around a lot through battlefields as carnage rages all around him, and ultimately saves the day and warms all our hearts. This plot is more-or-less identical to about half of The Iron Lady, although seeing Maggie Thatcher rise from grocer’s daughter to Prime Minister and obstinately press ahead with austerity as rioting and mass unemployment wreak havoc on all around her… it’s just not as uplifting

Indeed, the message of The Iron Lady is rather curious. Structured as a series of flashbacks by the now seriously mentally ill Baroness Thatcher,  she repeatedly recalls people giving her saccharine nuggets of advice: ‘Be yourself’, ‘Don’t let anyone tell you what to do’, ‘You can achieve anything’, and so on. Thatcher’s children Mark and Carol apparently considered the film a ‘Left-wing fantasy’; while they are wrong insofar as the film portrays its hero largely sympathetically, it is nonetheless a sort of liberal mystification of who Thatcher was: her fight against class and gender prejudice is pushed to the fore, and through her determination she manages to overcome these barriers and thus forces the establishment to accept her. Read the rest of this entry »

gaddafi in space

24 05 2011

Jack Staunton reviews Suicide of the Astronaut by Muammar al-Gaddafi

Colonel Gaddafi is, without a doubt, one of the greatest science fiction icons of all time. Who could forget the 1985 Infocom game A Mind Forever Voyaging, where the Libyan dictator dies in a nuclear test predicted for 2011? Add to this the opening scenes of Back to the Future, released that same year, when Libyan gunmen shoot Doc Brown, angry that he has stolen Gaddafi’s plutonium to fuel his time-travelling DeLorean.

No less of a contribution to the genre is Gaddafi’s own sci-fi volume, celebrated 1998 collection Escape to Hell. The lion of Tripoli set pen to paper to lay bare the moral emptiness of our fast-paced, instant-thrills modern society. Read the rest of this entry »

“our time is coming again”

11 05 2011

Sheila Cohen reviews New Trade Union Activism: Class Consciousness or Social Identity? Sian Moore, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Yet another pricey, “academic” book – but one with an interesting message. In New Trade Union Activism Sian Moore, who teaches trade unionists at London Metropolitan University’s Working Lives Research Institute, examines the increasing – and, to some of us, questionable – phenomenon of new forms of worker representation. By contrast to the staunch shop steward of the past, who simply took on whatever problems the daily toll of workplace exploitation threw up, the last ten years or so have seen the growth of specific “reps” for apparently every conceivable contingency – learning reps, equality reps, environmental reps, etc., etc. Read the rest of this entry »

the art of decadence: in east london

21 04 2011

by Joe Thorne

I visited three exhibitions in a relatively small area of East London on Saturday.

The first, at Foto 8, was of photographer Robert Gumpert’s portraits from inside San Fransisco’s jails.  In their own right, the pictures are compelling: dark and confrontational.  Most prisoners square up to the camera blankly, bare chested and thick-muscled.  Tattoos loop around their arms and throats.  But if the pictures are dark, the social reality which they represent is darker.


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a strike made in hollywood

17 11 2010

‘Feel-good’ hit movie Made in Dagenham didn’t make Sheila Cohen feel very good…

A film about a strike that really happened, a strike that brought a huge multinational to a standstill, a strike that was waged and led by women… What’s not to like? Only that Made In Dagenham fails to tell the true, and far more significant, story of the 1968 Ford sewing machinists’ strike – a story of class rebellion against exploitation rather than of softly gender-focused togetherness.

For its first half hour, Made In Dagenham looks good. Apart from the stripping-off scenes in the sweaty factory, unanimously repudiated by strike survivors, the film more or less tells it like it was – i.e. that the sewing machinists were involved in a grading dispute. The emphasis is necessary, because, along with almost every account of the dispute over the last 40-odd years, the next two-thirds of the film stubbornly present it as a “strike for equal pay”. Read the rest of this entry »

permanent revolution in the andes?

24 10 2010

David Broder reviews S. Sándor John’s history of Bolivian Trotskyism

It is commonplace for western leftists to reduce Bolivia to a mere appendage of developments in Venezuela and Cuba. Yet it is in Bolivia itself that there is the strongest movement from below of any country in the Americas. Despite its relative economic underdevelopment and the small size of its working class, the rich heritage of class struggle in the country is the envy of most of the rest of the world.

Moreover, Bolivia is unique for its political culture. This has been shaped by the failure of Stalinism and classical social democracy to sink roots; significant indigenous and peasant movements; it is the only country apart from Sri Lanka and Vietnam where Trotskyism has found mass influence.

S. Sándor John’s book Bolivia’s Radical Tradition is a history of Bolivian Trotskyism written by a member of a Trotskyist organisation in the USA, the Internationalist Group. It offers a valuable insight into a much-ignored history, and is also important in what it tells us about Trotskyist politics more generally. Read the rest of this entry »

where does resistance come from?

10 10 2010

Sheila Cohen reviews Workplace Conflict: Mobilization and Solidarity in Argentina by Maurizio Atzeni (Palgrave Macmillan 2010).

This is a book which should be read by anyone interested in and committed to rank and file activism. There are two obstacles – the price, which as with so many “academic” texts is absurdly high [1] and the English, which can be hard to get your head around. This is no fault of the Italian author, but the publisher clearly has not forked out for the necessary editing – which, at £60 a throw, is a bit of a cheek.

The content and theoretical approach of Workplace Conflict make it more than rewarding, despite these obstacles. In fact it is something of a landmark in the analysis of working-class consciousness, carrying as it does theoretical and strategic perspectives which depart from the static and non-dialectical approaches found in more conventional analyses. This is a book which can suggest ways forward for the rank and file working-class movement. Read the rest of this entry »

a revolution in retreat

28 06 2010

Adam Ford reviews The Russian Revolution in Retreat, 1920-24. Soviet workers and the new communist elite, by Simon Pirani, Routledge, 2008.

“I cannot be that sort of idealist communist who believes in the new God That They Call The State, bows before the bureaucracy that is so far from the working people, and waits for communism from the hands of pen-pushers and officials as though it was the kingdom of heaven.” - excerpt from the resignation letter of a Bolshevik Party member

Within what is usually labelled ‘the left’, your answer to the question ‘When did the Russian revolution go wrong?’ is a kind of touchstone. Each organisation seems to have its own One True Answer, and giving the wrong response at the wrong meeting can earn you the kind of scorn that the very religious reserve for those whose beliefs differ ever so slightly from theirs. Cue many weary Life of Brian jokes. Read the rest of this entry »

robin hood in the 21st century: rallying the poor for the civil liberties of the rich

1 06 2010

by Sebastian Wright

Robin Hood: a populist yarn and surefire crowd pleaser if ever there was one. He lives in the woods with his merry men, stealing from the rich, and redistributing to the poor; all the while engaging in a tit for tat with his arch nemesis, the feudal lacky the Sheriff of Nottingham. What could go wrong? Read the rest of this entry »

why don’t we side with the humans in avatar?

15 04 2010

by Sam Parsa

Recently director James Cameron returned after 12 years of absence since his Titanic (1997) to make Avatar. Costing somewhere between $200 to 300 million to make and returning a profit of over $1 billion, Avatar is a sci-fi film about a hired crew of humans who take over a planet called Pandora in 2154 in order to exploit its resources – mainly a substance called unobtanium.

Predictably, the large company of soldiers (and ex-Marines) are equipped with huge battleships and robot-soldiers. These end up being very hostile to the Na’vi, the native humanoid species, who are very traditional with their own strong cultural and religious traditions. As expected and as commentated by many, the storyline resembles the invasion of Iraq. However apart from the predictable romance between the native girl and the heroic white man, the story has a little twist: some of the scientists decide to defect to the Na’vi side, organise them, fight back with the humans and even win the battle. Read the rest of this entry »


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