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Alex Callinicos

Storms that sank the slavers

(June 1988)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 110, June 1988.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery 1776–1848
Robin Blackburn
Verso £27.95

THE YEARS between 1776 and 1848 saw some of the most decisive events in world history. The “age of democratic revolution”, as one historian dubbed it, embraced the American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789–94. It culminated with 1848 when, for the first time, the objective of socialism was placed firmly on the political agenda.

It was, however, an age of bourgeois revolution, in which the outcome was the entrenchment of the capitalist mode of production. Central to the bloody European wars unleashed by the French Revolution was the question of which power would dominate the world economy created by the development of capitalism between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries – an issue finally settled at Waterloo.

One crucial feature of this capitalist world economy was slavery. In the British and French colonies of the New World there flourished what Robin Blackburn calls “systematic slavery” – the large-scale exploitation of slaves imported from Africa to produce commodities such as sugar and tobacco for the world market.

Both slaves and their masters played a major role in the age of revolution. Some of the main leaders of the American Revolution were slave owners – most notably Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence. West Indian planters and the merchants of ports like Bourdeaux were among the initial supporters of the Revolution of 1789.

And, above all, the French Revolution precipitated the first successful slave rising in history – the Revolution in St Domingue which, under the leadership first of Toussaint Louverture and then of Dessalines, created the black Republic of Haiti. Less dramatically, the same epoch saw the major capitalist power, Britain, first ban the slave trade in 1807 and then, in 1833, abolish slavery itself.

The central episode in this story – the extraordinary alliance forged between French revolutionary leaders intent on weakening British power in the Caribbean and insurgent slaves in St Domingue – has, of course, been recreated by C.L.R. James in his famous book The Black Jacobins. Blackburn, the editor of New Left Review, doesn’t write with anything like James’s verve, but he is painting on a vastly larger canvas.

The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery deals in great detail not simply with the most dramatic events, but also with a variety of complex processes ranging from the British anti-slavery movement to the liberation of the Americas from Spanish colonial rule.

Given the scale of the enterprise (the book is part of a much larger work on the history of modern slavery), I shall only emphasise a couple of important themes.

Blackburn takes issue with the standard Marxist explanation of the abolition of slavery, especially in the British empire, namely that:

“Slavery belonged to the old world of colonial mercantilism and was rendered redundant by the rise of wage labour in the metropolis and the spread of European colonial rule in Asia and Africa.”

Blackburn points out various difficulties with this argument – for example, the West Indian slave plantations were still quite profitable on the eve of abolition. More important still, the period ended with slavery significantly stronger in certain regions – Cuba, Brazil, and above all, the American South, where the cotton plantations were closely integrated into the most advanced centre of industrial capitalism in the world, the Lancashire textile industry.

Blackburn concludes:

“Slavery was not overthrown for economic reasons but where it became politically untenable. Intense political and military struggles within and between the leading Atlantic powers created conditions in which slavery could be successfully challenged in many of the places where it had been of most importance in 1770 ... The slave systems perished in stormy class struggles in both colonies and metropolis.”

This was true not simply in St Domingue – Britain freed its slaves after the great Jamaican rising of Christmas 1831 and the mass movement which forced the ruling class to concede parliamentary reform in 1832.

My guess is that Blackburn’s argument can only be properly assessed after this book’s sequel, Nemesis of the Slave Power, appears. But it does have the great virtue of stressing the central part played by human agency in making history.

Blackburn dismisses fashionable attacks on “historical progress”, and insists:

“Despite the mixed results of anti-slavery in this period the sacrifices of slave rebels, of radical abolitionists and revolutionary democrats were not in vain.”

His patient reconstruction of the complex forms in which these struggles unfolded vindicate Blackburn’s claim.

The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery is a valuable book for socialists who wish to trace the tortuous paths through which modern capitalism emerged.

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