Workers Vanguard No. 942
11 September 2009
Slavery and the Origins of American Capitalism
We print below, in slightly edited form, a presentation by Jacob Zorn to a Spartacist League educational in New York on 30 March 2008, the first of several classes on black history and the development of the American labor movement.
This is not going to be a history class of everything that happened from 1492 to 1860; the material is too immense. I want to focus on the salient political points for this period, and also to try to set up the next class, on the Civil War. We are historical materialists, and as such we say that black oppression—and we say this often in WV—is not just a bunch of bad ideas but has a material, that is to say, a historical and class, basis. What I want to do in the class is explain the origins of this material basis. In the second class and in subsequent classes, this will be developed further. These are the three things I specifically want to drive home:
1. How slavery in the Americas was central to the development of capitalism, both on an international level and also here in the United States.
2. How elements of the contemporary black question, including the very concept of race, have their roots in the system of slavery.
3. How throughout every step of the development of the United States up through 1860 slavery was integral, from the colonial period, through the American war of independence, to the Constitution, and then culminating in the struggle that led up to the Civil War.
Marx and Primitive Capitalist Accumulation
I want to begin with what Marx calls the primitive accumulation of capital, which was discussed in one of the readings for this class, in the first volume of Capital. Marx has a very powerful quote in there: “In actual history, it is notorious that conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, briefly force, play the great part.” And that’s kind of a summary of what I’m going to be talking about: enslavement, robbery and murder.
I’m not going to go over much of the European background, although it’s worth reviewing our pamphlet, Enlightenment Rationalism and the Origins of Marxism (1998), and also some of the articles we’ve written on the English Civil War, in addition to the Capital reading. Marx talks about the bloody origins of capitalism, and one of the key events was the enclosure acts that threw the peasantry off the land in England and Scotland in order to kind of kick-start capitalism. As Marx describes, in Europe this resulted both in a class that owned the means of production (because land became necessary as a means of production, for wool and other things) and also a class that owned nothing but its labor power. One result, necessary for the British colonization of North America, is that it created a large surplus of people in England who were subject to incredibly harsh punishment for very small crimes and for whom even colonial Virginia looked like a good escape.
Marx also talks about how the conquest of America, both North and South America and the Caribbean, was also key in the development of world capitalism. A key element of this was the dispossession of the indigenous population, a dispossession that was extremely violent and genocidal. If you want a taste of what this was like, you should read the writings of a Spanish priest by the name of Bartolomé de las Casas, which go into a lot of the gratuitous violence: about 95 percent of the pre-Colombian indigenous population was killed, perhaps 90 million people. But this early Spanish colonization, which was largely based on extracting gold and silver, fueled the development not only of Spanish but also of Dutch and English capitalism.
In North America, primitive capitalist accumulation meant not only dispossessing the indigenous population of the land, but also finding somebody to do the work, since in North America the English really didn’t use the Indians as a labor force. A comrade brought to my attention a really good article in WV No. 581 (30 July 1993), “Genocide ‘Made in USA’,” that shows how the destruction of millions of people was key in the building of the American nation and the laying of the basis for the development of North American capitalism, and how it left a birthmark of racism on American capitalism from the get-go. But fundamentally the colonists in North America had the opposite problem from what the ruling class in Britain had: that is, there was an abundance of land but a shortage of people to work on it.
I want to make the point that a lot of the history of the Americas, especially here in the United States, tends to be focused on North America. But in the early years of colonization, the most desired area of the Americas was really the Caribbean, and it was much later that North America was colonized—and not only by the English: there were Spanish outposts (for example, St. Augustine, Florida, is the longest continuously settled city founded by Europeans in the current U.S.); there was French fur trading in Quebec and plantation agriculture in Louisiana; and also obviously the Dutch in New Jersey and New York, as well as the British in Virginia. There was a lot of competition among these different European powers, and we’ll look especially at the rivalry of the Dutch and the English in terms of mercantilism.
Capitalism and Slavery
The readings talk about “chattel slavery.” So what exactly is a chattel slave? It’s not a concept that is used much today. “Chattel” means personal property. It’s related to the word “cattle.” And that is what slaves were: they were legally property that was sold and sometimes killed.
In the abstract, capitalism and slavery are fundamentally counterposed systems. One is based on free labor, and the other, on slave labor. Many of the advocates of capitalism opposed chattel slavery not only because they thought it was morally wrong, but also because they thought it was retrogressive. In The Wealth of Nations (1776), Adam Smith wrote: “From the experience of all ages and nations, I believe, that the work done by freemen comes cheaper in the end than that performed by slaves” and “Whatever work he does beyond what is sufficient to purchase his own maintenance can be squeezed out of him by violence only, and not by any interest of his own.”
Likewise, Alexander Hamilton, about whom we will be talking in a bit, said that slavery “relaxes the sinews of industry, clips the wings of commerce, and introduces misery and indigence in every shape” (quoted in James Oliver Horton, “Alexander Hamilton: Slavery and Race in a Revolutionary Generation,” New-York Journal of American History [Spring 2004]). The piece that comrades read from Eugene Genovese, “The Slave South: An Interpretation,” in The Political Economy of Slavery (1965) shows how, as a system, slavery was not capitalist; the slavocracy in the American South had its own productive system, its own values—or, to use Genovese’s phrase, its own “civilization”—that derived from this non-bourgeois system. Slavery was fundamentally different from capitalism.
However, capitalism did not evolve in the abstract, but in the concrete, and slavery was fundamental to this development. Even though the slave system itself was not capitalist, slavery was central to the development of capitalism, both in the U.S. and internationally. Slavery was also a very profitable “industry”—for lack of a better term—in its own right, and international and American capitalists are indelibly stained with slavery.
Slavery, of course, is not only a precapitalist, but also a prefeudal system of production. There is a brilliant book by Karl Kautsky called the Foundations of Christianity (1908) that, among other things, analyzes the importance of slavery in ancient Rome. Many of the elements of slavery in America are actually discussed by Kautsky in his treatment of plantation or mining slavery in Rome. He distinguishes, for example, between slavery for domestic use and slavery for profit, or commodity slavery. Obviously, commodity production in ancient Rome did not reach the level that it does under capitalism, but he made the point that when slaves make commodities that are then sold for the profit of their masters, the masters increase the exploitation of the slaves, which can only be done through immense oppression and brutality. Kautsky describes in detail a lot of the very brutal nature of Roman slavery, and he traces the decline of Rome to the contradictions in its slave system. For our purposes, one of the key elements, however, that is missing in Kautsky’s piece is race. This is not an accident, because, as we’ll see, Roman slavery was not a racial form of slavery.
With the destruction of the centralized Roman state in West Europe and the development of feudalism, slavery largely died out in medieval Europe. In 1086, for example, about 10 percent of the English population were slaves, but slavery was not central to medieval society. It was still practiced in the Mediterranean and parts of the Arab world, but in West Europe, feudalism was the dominant system, with serfdom the main productive form of labor.
The development of the English colonies in the Americas was concurrent with the development of capitalism in Britain—it was going on at the same time as the English Civil War, and there were various political intrigues over whom the colonies would support; there are cities in the United States named after both King Charles I and Cromwell, for example. Yet, the contradiction is that the rise of capitalism was accompanied with a new rise of slavery. Particularly in the English case, this was accompanied by the creation of the world sugar market. Eating sugar is not based on slavery, but the creation of the sugar market was.
I want to make some points about the development of slavery in the Americas. The first is that there is a prehistory: before the Spanish arrived in America, the Portuguese had begun using slave labor on plantations in their island colonies off Africa, such as Madeira and the Azores. By 1452, the Pope had given the Portuguese the right to trade slaves, and in 1479 the Spanish crown gave Portugal a monopoly over the slave trade. By 1502, there is evidence of black slaves in the Spanish colony of Santo Domingo
—that is to say 130 years before the English planters really began using slaves in the Caribbean and almost 200 years before slavery became entrenched in what would become the United States, in Virginia.
Slavery was crucial in almost every European colony throughout the Americas, and from the 16th century through the mid 19th century between 10 and 12 million Africans were “traded” as slaves. And it was extremely violent: depending on what century you’re looking at, between 10 and 40 percent of the slaves died in transit. Ninety-five percent of these African slaves ended up in either the Caribbean or Latin America. North America received a relatively small fraction of all the African slaves, and this would have important ramifications on how slavery developed here.
Although the first slaves arrived in Virginia in 1619, for most of the 17th century the dominant labor system in Virginia was indentured servitude, which was a really nasty and brutal system. If it weren’t for the slave system that came after, we would probably label indentured servitude one of the most brutal systems known. Indentured servants agreed to work for a period of years, usually between five and seven, in exchange for transportation to America. They might be promised land at the end of their terms.
But to begin with, many indentured servants did not live to the end of their terms of service. While they were servants, they were subjected to extremely harsh discipline and punishment. They could be whipped, they could be beaten, they could be sold for the duration of their terms of service. They worked a lot harder than English peasants worked, and a lot of what we think of as unique to slavery was also present in various ways in indentured servitude. Many servants ran away.
By the mid-to-late 1600s, from the point of view of the planters, there developed several problems with indentured servitude. Servants were living longer. (Incidentally, one of the reasons that they began to live longer is that they began to drink more alcohol and not drink polluted water.) This meant that there began to develop a layer of unruly and dissatisfied ex-indentured servants, making Virginia more and more unstable. The danger of this was highlighted in 1676 with Bacon’s Rebellion, when poor whites, mostly former indentured servants, and blacks united against the colonial government—in this case, to demand that the colonial government, among other things, drive out the Indians. But at the same time, fewer and fewer Europeans were willing to come to America as servants, partly because England was developing economically and partly because news got around England of what servitude was like, and it did not seem so attractive as it might have before.
So the fact that servants were living longer at the end of the 17th century made slavery (which was for life) more attractive, from the point of view of the planters, than servitude (which was usually for less than a decade). The planters in Virginia began to import slaves in larger and larger numbers. By the first decade of the 18th century, Virginia had been transformed from a society in which slaves were present into a society in which slavery was the central productive relationship, a slave society. This was not the only slave society in the Americas, but it was quite different from the slave societies in the Caribbean or Brazil.
When I was preparing this class, comrade Foster raised the interesting question: why did it take a revolution—the Civil War—to get rid of slavery in the United States, whereas in many other countries (not all of them, Haiti also obviously had a revolution) it did not take a revolution to get rid of slavery. There are various reasons, but one is that in the American South there were more slaveowners, many owning relatively few slaves, so that slavery was much more entrenched in colonial society and in later U.S. society. But importantly, from the point of view of the planters, slavery not only offered a source of labor, but also it offered a source of social stability, because with slavery came what veteran American Trotskyist Richard S. Fraser calls the concept of race.
The Race Concept
I’m not going to talk a lot about it because comrades are familiar, but there is no scientific basis for this concept of race. At the same time, various academics like to talk about race being “socially constructed.” But even though race is not scientifically real, it is very, very real. It affects almost every aspect of one’s life in this country, as we are reminded when we look at the newspaper every day. Marx, dealing with religion, wrote in The German Ideology (1846) that religion has no history—that is to say, no history independent of the social conditions that created it. So as Marxists, we understand that race is not just a bad idea, but one that developed out of a social system of production, a system of social relations, chattel slavery. This is explained very well in Fraser’s “The Negro Struggle and the Proletarian Revolution” [in Prometheus Research Series No. 3, August 1990, “In Memoriam: Richard S. Fraser”]. And for comrades who are interested in a more in-depth look at it, there is also a very good book on the creation of the idea of race in America by Winthrop Jordan, called White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (1968), that goes back to the 16th century.
Chattel slavery is an inherently inhuman system. It involves degrading an entire group of people, putting them by definition outside the realm of both legal and moral protection. Chattel slaves are not legally human. As John Locke said in Two Treatises of Government, in 1690, slaves “are by the Right of Nature subjected to the Absolute Dominion and Arbitrary Power of their masters. These Men cannot in that state be considered as any part of Civil Society .” This would later be paraphrased in the Dred Scott decision that the black man had no rights that the white man was bound to respect. The concept of race served as a justification for slavery, conflating class status—slavery—with physical features: skin color. While there were some free blacks, even in the South, being black became equated with being a slave, that is, outside of the norms of human society. It’s also useful to keep in mind that, of course, Africans at the time of slavery were not all of the same “race,” either: there were very different societies in Africa, and if we could borrow a term, we could talk about “how Africans became black.” Frederick Douglass has an important statement from when slavery was still in existence:
“We are then a persecuted people, not because we are colored, but simply because that color has for a series of years been coupled in the public mind with the degradation of slavery and servitude.”
—“Prejudice Against Color” (1850), in The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Vol. 2,
ed. Philip S. Foner (1950)
This is the beginning of the material basis for the creation of a race-color caste in North America. And it’s not an accident that laws banning interracial sex and marriage were passed in Virginia and Maryland at the same time that slavery became consolidated in the late 1600s and early 1700s.
The idea of race was defended using the so-called “Curse of Ham” from the Bible, which is the idea that blackness was a curse from God, going back to Noah. And there was in fact slavery in biblical times, and you can find lots of passages in the Bible about slavery, and these were used to justify American slavery. I don’t want to defend the honor of the Old Testament, but nowhere is racial slavery mentioned in the Bible because it did not exist. Comrade Don pointed out a very interesting article by George Breitman that was published in the Spring 1954 issue of Fourth International, called “When Anti-Negro Prejudice Began,” that looks at the development of racism. And he shows that in the ancient world, there was no one group of people that was by definition enslaved, nor was slavery confined to one particular group. This idea of race did not make sense—it didn’t exist. So, racial slavery did not exist.
I also want to make an aside that race in the U.S. is different than race in other places, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean, which had different types of slavery. There’s a myth in Brazil called “racial democracy,” which is that there’s really no such thing as race in Brazil; everybody’s Brazilian. This is obviously untrue, but it does reflect the fact that there was a different expression of slavery there. A lot of the difference has to do with how slavery developed in North America and the nature of British mercantilism. At the time the Virginian planters began to use slaves, the Dutch had already taken over the slave trade from the Portuguese, and because of Dutch-English rivalries, in 1651 Navigation Acts were passed, making it illegal for British colonists to buy products from other countries. Slaves were included as “products,” obviously. This had an important ramification on the importation of slaves. In fact, many of the early slaves in Virginia were not actually from Africa, but from Barbados. It’s also important to keep in mind that from the British perspective, the center of the slave trade was not in North America but in the Caribbean.
Therefore, the slave population in North America became a lot more stable, tended to live a lot longer and have more children. The details, for example, of slavery in Jamaica are horrid. The average slave tended to die within seven years of arriving in Jamaica. Therefore, although the slave trade provided only half a million African slaves to North America, by the time of the Civil War, the slave population in the United States had grown to four million people. A lot of this has to do with the demographics. In the British Caribbean, many plantations were left in the hands of overseers, while their absentee owners were content to stay in Britain. Eric Williams talks about this in his book, Capitalism and Slavery (1944). In North America, the planters became more Americanized, and they tended to stay in North America. For example, the Lee family of Virginia arrived around 1639; the Washingtons arrived around the same time.
In the Caribbean, the plantations were much larger, and slaveowners there had more slaves than in North America. One result of this is that African culture was destroyed through the experience of slavery to a much larger degree in North America than in the Caribbean or Brazil. As Fraser put it in “The Negro Struggle and the Proletarian Revolution,” in the United States “the Negro people are among the oldest of all the immigrant groups. They are essentially American.” And this is also shown in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, in which Douglass pointedly calls himself An American Slave in the title. He illustrates that slaves in the U.S. spoke English, were largely Christian (he’s very powerful on the role of Christianity in supporting slavery), and were an organic part of American society. This is different than in Haiti, for example, where at the time of the Haitian Revolution, two-thirds of the black population were born in Africa. Or in Cuba. There’s a book by Miguel Barnet, The Autobiography of a Runaway Slave (1966), based on interviews with a former slave who was born 50 years after Douglass, Esteban Montejo, that talks about how even in the late 19th century there were lots of aspects of African culture that survived in Cuba.
So that’s an important part of understanding the integral and unique nature of slavery in the U.S., which has programmatic implications today: there’s no separate black nation, and our program is one of revolutionary integrationism.
Slavery and the Development of Capitalism
One of the strengths of the Williams book is that he shows how the development of British industrial capitalism was to a large degree based upon slavery. The bourgeoisie in Liverpool, Manchester and the City of London became rich through the slave trade, later through sugar trading, and then with textile production that used slave-produced cotton. Of course slavery was not what provided the labor in England in the development of English capitalism or the industrial revolution. But after the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, and then slavery itself in the British Caribbean in the 1830s, British capitalism still depended on slavery because the textile mills of Manchester, for example, needed cotton. In 1860, about 75 percent of all British cotton came from the American South. This is part of the reason, as Marx wrote at the time, that a section of the British bourgeoisie supported the South during the American Civil War.
Also, throughout the late 18th century, there was slavery in much of the North (comrades might remember the very good “Slavery in New York” exhibit at the New York Historical Society), even though it was not the central method of production. By the early 19th century, slavery as a social relationship had mostly disappeared from the North (the last Northern state to free its slaves was New Jersey, in 1846). But the main connection between the nascent bourgeoisie and slavery was not that they owned slaves.
There is a very interesting book called Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery (2005), written by three reporters for the Hartford Courant. It shows how the Northern bourgeoisie was connected to the slave system by a million threads: they bought molasses, which was made with slave labor, and sold rum as part of the Triangle Trade; they lent money to Southern planters; and most of the cotton that was sold to Britain was shipped through Northern ports, including here in New York City. They financed the slave trade, and even after it became illegal, there were still ships leaving from New York that were involved in slave trading. And they sold manufactured goods to the South. This is the background to the relationship between Northern capitalism and slavery. Capitalism is very different from slavery, but at the same time they are very historically connected.
[TO BE CONTINUED]