A Review: The American Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights
By Robin Blackburn, Verso Books, London, 2011
The crucible which is American history is a cascading nexus of interconnected causality, which spans a world-historical epoch of more than 500 years. Human beings make their own history and yet at the same time we are our history. We do not choose the world we are born into, yet it is in this crucible that we set about making our own history. We stand at the threshold of something new that is emerging, and what we become is up to us.
Robin Blackburn provides a comprehensive description of a complex process,which shows the development of modern capitalism along with the conquest and exploitation of the Americas, the introduction of slavery, the revolutions that gave rise to the overthrow of the feudal regimes, and the fight for emancipation. Slavery provided the impetus for the development of capitalism, and capitalist development in turn extended the scale and intensified the pace of plantation labor. The revolutions for liberate´, egalite´, fraternité were in turn influenced by abolitionism and the revolutions in the Americas for emancipation, particularly the Haitian revolution.
By the end of the 17th century nearly all slaves in the Americas were African. Slavery had until then been a practically universal practice. In Africa slavery was widespread and represented a subordinate status, but was not based initially on race. Greece and Rome took captives as slaves from many ethnic backgrounds, and in the Middle Ages in Europe the word “slave” echoed the Slav peoples of Eastern Europe. There were also slave regimes in China and Korea, and various Islamic states practiced slavery.
The New Racism
Racism in the modern sense was not the motive force for plantation slavery in the Americas. “The planters and merchants acquired slaves because they could make a profit from them.” (p. 94) The slave plantation represented a new kind of political economy, in which the slaves themselves were a commodity. It was a new type of enterprise, based upon a great intensification of slave work and subordination. The slave regimes were by-products of capitalism and colonialism.
The slave-based commerce of the Americas made a significant contribution to the accumulation of capital which led to industrialization, providing capital, markets, and raw materials. The slave plantation was constructed by and for the market, with the aim of maximizing commodity outputs. In Britain there was a dual process of primitive accumulation and of using the super-profits of slavery to finance the expansion of industry and credit. From 1760 -1820 manufacture was transformed by an “industrial revolution.” The expansion of the slave plantation fed into this transformation, and capitalist industrialization fueled the further development of slavery.
In the U.S. South, industrialization expanded the scale and intensified the pace of slave labor. Even though a mode of production based primarily on manual labor, some mechanical advances were introduced, including the cotton gin and steam transport. The planters were among the first to adapt steam power to bale cotton, grind sugar cane and to transport them to market on trains and steamships.
Even though the slave population became virtually all African by the 1800s primarily for economic reasons, there began a multi-layered process of constructing new racial identities based on skin color and social status. Slaves in the Americas grew from 1/3 of a million in 1700 to 2.3 million in 1770. Over 150,000 slaves per year were acquired from the African coast. “Slavery in the steam age was even more implacable than its predecessor, with the productivity of the slave gangs pushed up a notch.” (p.295) The number of slaves doubled between 1815-1860 – 4 million in the U.S. South, 1.75 million in Brazil, 250,000 in Cuba.
Those same decades saw the emergence of a new racism, assuming a racial hierarchy and using racial categories based on skin color, even though racial inferiority was also ascribed to the Celts and the Jews. Racial destiny was found to be inscribed in existing conditions. “The slavery of the New World permanently created, defined and embodied a violent subordination of blacks by whites, Africans by Europeans, ‘heathens’ by Christians, one race by another. The result was the coalescence of a characteristic racial ideology,” (p. 95) in which slaves were viewed as less than human.
Emancipation and the Haitian Pivot
Yet if the 19th century was a time when slave-based economies were established along with the new racism that consolidated it, it was also the century of abolitionism, emancipation and revolutions. “The years 1776 to 1848 in the Atlantic world witnessed the creation of a string of new states and administered a revolutionary shock or challenge to the old order, and to colonialism and slavery.” (p. 175)
The American, French, Haitian and Spanish American revolutions were all interconnected, each radicalizing the other – with Haiti as the pivot. A kind of dialectic between reformist and revolutionary varieties of anti-slavery developed. Abolitionism itself would have become nothing without the elemental anti-slavery of the slaves themselves, and nowhere was this more evident than with the Haitian revolution.
The only successful large-scale slave revolt in human history, it channeled the mass longing for freedom into a ban on slavery. In France there was a surge of a new egalitarianism, denouncing privilege, including the “aristocracy of the skin.”
The American revolution was itself an exhibition of the interplay and interconnectedness of cause and effect as the opposing forces of the entrenchment of slavery and the battle for emancipation developed virtually simultaneously.
An appeal was made to natural rights, but without addressing race or slavery.
The U.S. Constitution, passed in 1787, did not regulate or even mention slavery, and forbade Congress from banning the slave trade for 20 years. The Constitution went far toward entrenching slavery as an institution. The plantations became a law unto themselves.
Haiti contributed to an idea of revolution that haunted the political landscape throughout the Americas. The abolitionists – William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Denmark Vesey, Frederick Douglass, Nat Turner, John Brown – were all impacted by the events in Haiti. “The idea of a revolutionary overturning of the slave order was abroad, and itself became an element of the political drama that led to the Civil War.” (p. 246)
In 1801 Thomas Jefferson promised every assistance to Napoleon in “reducing Touissant Louverture, the leader of the Haitian revolution, to starvation.” He supported a return to slavery and French rule. In return, the Louisiana Purchase allowed for the admission of slavery into the territories. Haiti was quarantined by the U.S., and Haiti was not recognized by the U. S. until 1862.
Abolitionism and the revolutions of which it was a part nevertheless did not stop slavery itself from advancing with great strides in step with the advance of capitalism particularly in the U.S. South, Brazil and Cuba. After the banning of the slave trade over 2 million new slaves were brought to the Americas, mostly to Brazil and Cuba, between 1804 and 1860. “The leading slave-holders and merchants of the U. S. and Brazil were by1830 installed at the heart of the State and in a position to bid for slave-holder hegemony.”
The slave order and the fight for emancipation stand in direct antagonism to one another. On the one hand the Confederacy stressed continuity with the spirit of 1776 and state’s rights, while on the other Abraham Lincoln arose as the embodiment of a state power not under slave-holder control. As Karl Marx puts it, “the slaveholder’s rebellion was to sound the tocsin for a general holy crusade of property against labor.”
While the Civil War was ultimately decided in favor of emancipation, it did not end the hegemony of private property, and the suppression of chattel slavery did not prevent the reappearance of the ideology of racial exclusion and oppression which had buttressed the old slave regimes. The defeat of Reconstruction and the rise of the Redeemer governments in the South allowed for the reestablishment of white supremacy in an even more virulent form.
The balance of the 20th century saw the sway of capital swell to global dimensions; it was in this last expansionist phase of capital that the “second reconstruction” of the 1960s in the U.S. South allowed finally the full integration of the Black worker into the productive process of modern industrial capital. Even so, these last great reforms only permitted the completion of the transition from labor enchained to the “free” labor of wage-slavery. The subordination of a class changed its form, but the content remained the same.
The Content of Our Time: Private Property and Emancipation
The American Crucible sets the historical basis and context for us to look at the quality of our own time, both in term of historical continuity and discontinuity. Blackburn’s book ends on the cusp of a new epoch being born, a time in which old forms die away, but also in which the promise of fulfillment of the deepest yearnings of the people is heralded.
Electronics has the unique property of being a tool of production that for the first time replaces human labor. At the very moment that capitalist private property had reached the limits of its expansion, its death knell is announced with the introduction of new productive forces that spells the end of the very basis of wage-labor and capital. A new epoch is underway. The basis of everything changes – new classes, new forms of the fight for the liberation and emancipation of a subordinated, oppressed and exploited class.
The content of the crucible which is America contains not only the components of the development and reign of private property, but also the centuries-long battle for emancipation and equality. In that epoch in which capital was arising, a class in bondage arose to cast off its chains, chains reinforced by an ideology of white supremacy. Today the material basis of that inequality is receding, but the content remains in a new form. A new class of displaced, dispossessed and cast-off workers is arising, but it is in a battle for its very survival. They are Black and white, men and women, old and young. They only share a common impoverishment, expressed today by the growing polarity of wealth and poverty.
These are new times, and the forms may be changing, but the content persists: this time it is for the liberation of a global new class enchained by the yoke of private property, this time it is the inequality between the obscene wealth of a ruling class and the absolute poverty of a subordinate class. This time it is about the emancipation of a class and consequently all of humanity.
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Rally, Comrades ! May/June 2011