H.M. Hyndman

The Evolution of Revolution

Chapter 6
The Early Chattel Slave System

In the early days of tribal and then patriarchal slavery, which followed upon the gentile and communal society of common property, close consanguinity and equality of sexes and conditions, the treatment of the slaves was fairly good. But there was no place for them, they not having been absorbed by adoption, except in permanent inferiority and almost animal degredation, within the society of that day, any more than there would have been for their conquerors in the tribes of tribes of the slaves themselves, had the result of the conflict gone the other way. The defeated had forfeited all right to their own existence. Enslavement was accepted on both sides as a recognised result of the fortune of war, just as torture and death have been received. Neither side could claim quarter under any circumstance.

The next generation of slaves, whose fathers and mothers had been brought into captivity and bred up in the tribe, inherited of necessity the servile position of their parents. It could not be otherwise. There was no known form by which slaves who begat children could secure any tribal rights for their offspring, nor could the tribal gentes bring them into their groups. Once slaves, always slaves, when war had decreed their subjugation. This went on from generation to generation. Success tended to extend and stereotype the system. Sudden death at the will of the captor always hung over the slaves in the earlier stage. Cruelty or kindness had nothing to do with the economic conditions as a whole. Either was a mere incident in the general growth. As nothing can be more cruelly indifferent to suffering than Nature herself, so no process can be more ruthless than unconscious economic and social human development. But there is reason to believe that tribal slavery was specially cruel to the slaves; rather the contrary. Such examples of this collective form of human servitude as still survive in differentparts of the world are, on the whole, less brutal as compared with the general social conditions around them than the private ownership which slowly followed.

The slaves were in their own persons free and independent tribesfolk, though their product was owned and partitioned by the master tribe and its chiefs instead of by themselves. What helped, however, to spread the system when once begun was that, generally speaking, the tribes owning numerous slaves had a greater abundance of what they required of their own communal subsistence and welfare than tribes which had adhered to the old time-honoured custom of immediate and wholesale immolation of their enemies.

In this way, also, the warriors of the conquering tribe were left freer to qualify themselves for, and attend to, their business of war than they were before. Their slaves, that is to say, performed with the women the bulk of the productive work, or could even be used to strengthen the forces of their masters for attack or defence. In another direction, likewise, tribal slaves were convenient. As barter and exchange made way slowly under tribal and communal social forms, slaves themselves might be used, and were used, like cattle – likewise a portion of tribal ownership in pasturing countries – for the purposes of facilitating such traffic as a means of exchange. Nevertheless while exchange was in its infancy and private property, except in purely personal effects, unknown, there was as yet no accumulation of wealth for the recognised purpose of obtaining more wealth for the tribe through the trade conducted even between chiefs elective or hereditary. This came gradually, at a later stage and under very different conditions.

Even when private property was initiated, and man was master inside as well as outside the patriarchal home, slavery was comparatively mild. The slaves of the patriarchal house­hold, whether the general life was pastoral or agricultural, formed part of the polygamous or monogamous family, their relations to its various members being of a personal and not of a harsh, pecuniary character. Slaves aided their masters and their womenkind in the depasturing and care of the flocks and herds, performed the various duties in connection with removal from one camping ground to another, as well as in preparing the various articles required for use, the surplus of which came by degrees into habitual exchange. Similarly, the earliest agricultural slavery, which came into play for the individual owner of private property in land, and grew as tillage replaced and supplemented the pastoral life of breeding and feeding cattle, goats, pigs, etc., was not accompanied by excessive severity in the countries where these stages of development were successively attained. It was production for immediate use of the producers and their neighbours; and there was still no economic motive for overwork or maltreatment of the slaves.

How long this transitional period of collective and then of personal family slavery lasted in the various countries where this social evolution went forward at different epochs it is impossible to say. But here again, as with the existence of communism itself, we have to revise all the old-world notions as to the length of time needed to proceed from one stage of human development to another, even where the changing forms seem to betoken the certainty of forcible overthrows – of which, within the respective societies themselves, there was and is little or no evidence. Thus the transformation of the purely “democratic” communism of the horde and the gens was not altered, in so far as its internal and property relations were concerned, of chiefs to preside over the tribe of which the various gentes formed parts, or even over the federations into which the tribes were combined. These chosen rulers of the small consanguineous republics were, to begin with, no more than first among their equals, appointed temporarily or for life to carry on the functions of these communities, in peace and in war, for the benefit of all the members. There was originally no sanctity in their office and no hereditary claim of their sons to enjoy the succession.

When,. however, such leadership and chieftainship did become hereditary, and families connected with the chief were recognised as superiors, then not only did equal temporary leadership merge into first an accepted and then practically an imposed authority, but the power of the chiefs over the slaves of the community expanded into something which was not far from absolute possession. Then also the trading away of slaves and women had previously been, in the early days of undeveloped exchange, a wholly collective bargaining for collective advantage (though the actual business was done by the chiefs individually); it now became a portion of transactions of the chiefs themselves. Thus the slaves of the tribe came to be chiefly the slaves of the head men of the tribe. They were, in fact, the first herds of beasts who formed the private property of their superior fellow-humans; just as in pastoral districts cattle, sheep, pigs, etc., followed on the same line and, like the slaves themselves, came to be used as means of exchange. At the same time, therefore, that collective and afterwards chiefdom slavery grew, private property and individual ownership was developing.

Personal property, at first entirely confined to weapons, clothing, tools and decorations, which at death devolved upon the gens of the deceased as communal heritage, extended only to flocks and herds where these existed, or to other tame creatures such as turkeys, geese, pigs and so on, but to the produce of the soil, and eventually, but much more slowly, to soil itself. Hence with slavery, even in its wildest form, and with private property in its least objectionable shape, the whole structure of human society was completely transformed. The motive force, the psychological and ethical and sexual relations were revolutionised. Man being supreme, and women far more at his disposal than she was in the communal days, regarded not only the property and the household as his, but his male children as the heirs of the goods he had acquired absolute title to, including the slaves who worked for the benefit of himself and his family, or were parted with in return for other things he might need. Nevertheless these slaveowners and private property holders were still in the period of what economists call natural production. Their main object, that is to say, was to supply the needs and desires of their own families with the articles which they themselves were able to produce. What things they required that were obtainable from without they received by way of barter, in return for the surplus of their own stocks. Families might thus be living together as portions of a collection of families, still connected by the old gentile tie under patriarchal leadership and control, enjoying considerable comfort. But this phase of sound growth, with its attendant slavery, might and did go on for long periods without the exchange of their superfluity affecting the general economic and social relations. Not until slaves became mere human beasts, no longer for food but for creating wealth, or rather living tools, easily and cheaply replaced when worn out, did slavery by degrees assume the dominant social form of production. Then powerful aggregations of tribes went forth to conquer their neighbors for the sake of enslaving them, just as their ancestors had pursued the like course for the purpose of devouring them.

Slavery, in fact, both tribal and familial, did not become directly and personally cruel, or actuated by mere greed, until individual accumulation of wealth became the guiding motive; thereafter, theocratic monarchy developed into great states. Early slavery in agriculture, where the small land-owner cultivated his own soil side by side with his slaves, was not as a rule harsh in its effect on the slave. This slave, born on the holding, and bred into subservience to the tribe, the gentile family, or the small cultivator, not having known freedom, like his successors born out of due time on the other side of the Atlantic, had no keener sense of his personal degradation and inferiority than the bulk of the wage slaves have of their position in our society of to-day. They were accustomed to it: they could not think out of it. So only outrageous mis-usage by their masters could drive them, not into conscious class revolts, but into individual or collective vengeance for wrong done. It is this sense of social permanence, by birth and training in their conception of life, which accounts in a way for the quiet acceptance of what seems to us unendurable human though precisely similar wrongs, undergone in a similar way, pass unnoticed all round us.

Writers on slavery still commonly assume that it was essential for a small minority of men to have absolute control over a much larger number of their fellows in the early days of human society. Otherwise mankind as a whole could have made no progress from primitive hordes and general savagery onwards. Thus, according to this view, chattel slavery was from the first inevitable, in order to compel men to work for the advantage of humanity. No slavery, no organised society.

M. Wallon, who published his exhaustive work on chattel slavery nearly eighty years ago, opens his first volume with the opening sentence: – “Slavery was the foundation of ancient society and, however far we go back to the origin of peoples, we find some form of servitude among the elements of their civilisation.” Such complete misapprehension and mis-presentation was, perhaps, excusable at the beginning of the nineteenth century, though even then the truth was known to thorough students of sociology. But there are still scholastic writers who take this for granted in leading works of references nearly three generations later. Such a view, as we have seen, is quite incorrect. The domination of men by men was wholly unnecessary in order to induce groups of human beings to work together for the joint benefit of all; nor did this communal life prevent inventions and discoveries of a most remarkable character from being made.

Permanent enslavement had its origin in the capture of large masses of men, women and children in war. Defeat in battle gave slavery its ethical basis, and no further sanction was needed. That the slaveowners of to-day might, by a turn the wheel of fortune, become the slaves of the same people whom they had conquered previously, cast no doubt upon the sanction given to successful force. There was no appeal from the decision of war, except by an endeavour to upset it by another war.

The great civilisations of antiquity, civic and theocrat were built up on chattel slavery, instituted by enslavement of captives from hostile societies. But there were apparent exceptions to the general law of growth, vigour and decay under the slave system. With the breakdown of slavery the empires dependent upon this form of production inevitably fell. Yet a short survey of the history of China shows that this has not been the case with infinitely the most ancient civilisation in existence. Small landownership and skilled artisanship have there held their own for thousands of years, against any form of slavery or serfdom, as the main basis of Chinese society. Neither can it be alleged that slavery among the Jews took the shape either of permanence of caste domination or the unbroken rigour of private personal ownership.

Slaves in Judea were supposed to be manumitted by law after seven years’ continued service, and all slaves were emancipated definitely once every fifty-year period. Obviously, laws which enjoined such rapid release from personal ownership for slaves were not enacted by rulers or accepted by a people who believed in the inevitable economic necessity of slavery; although the production and distribution remained nearly the same from time immemorial. However much the statutes in favour of slaves may have been evaded – and the strong denunciation by Jewish priests and legislators of serious malpractices in the matter shows that they were frequently broken – the fact remains that among the Hebrews, likewise at the height of their power, slavery was not at all regarded as an able social and economic institution; although they had full experience of its advantages and disadvantages under methods of production that prevailed before and after its commencement.

In the great Asiatic empires and Egypt, with their theocratic monarchies and powerful priesthood, slavery, both public and personal, became part of the religious system, though it and existed side by side with independent private property in land and cultivation by freeholders and leaseholders, as shown in ancient records discovered in the great cities of Assyria and Babylonia. Under the caste system, where that was stereotyped by religious enactment and custom, the relation of the slaves to the higher castes, and especially to the priestly caste, was one of unrelieved degradation. By this system immense public works were constructed and vast wealth was accumulated. As measured by the standards of antiquity, Babylon, Egypt, Asia Minor, Persia were the seats of wealthy empires.

In Europe similar results were achieved by slave labour. It was chiefly by the labour of slaves that the West, the East, the South piled up those great riches which were seized by the Romans and transferred to Rome. While, therefore, slavery was not indispensable in ancient times for the creation of well-being, it is nevertheless certain that its universality, at a given stage of progress, proves that the institution was essential to development of Mediterranean civilisation. And large numbers of slaves could only be obtained by conquest. Slavery on the scale needed could not safely be imposed upon even normally free citizens, however inferior their economic position might be, no matter how completely the position of the ruler was fortified by accepted religions. One of the most powerful and able of the rulers of Egypt compelled his own free people to construct with infinite toil a vast indestructible monument to himself for his glorification. But this waste of their labour roused even the passive and long-enduring Egyptians to such furious discontent that his successors found it more convenient, as well as less dangerous, to obtain the necessary man-power for similar bootless constructions by successful wars, and the consequent importation of vast numbers of slaves from without. Organised slave raids of this character formed part of the foreign policy all the slave monarchies. This was not always the aknowledged object of their wars, which were sometimes for the more obvious ends of direct plunder of riches accumulated, or for the humbling of a rival potentate whose ascendancy was obnoxious to the attacking ruler. But this economic and social motive had increasing influence, as is evidenced by the importance attached on the monuments to the numbers of slaves marshalled behind the war chariot of the conquerors, in these records of their triumphs. Slavery required a constant supply of slaves from without for the maintenance of the system within. Home breeding rarely, if ever, sufficed to meet the demand for more slaves to replace those lost by the wear and tear of slave life.

Last updated on 27.7.2006