A system built on slavery

From its first issues in 1977, Socialist Worker featured a regular column on "The History and Politics of Black America." In 1984, the column became a multi-part series on African American history, which we are republishing. In the second installment, Deborah Roberts explains how slavery in the Americas, and particularly in the U.S. South, was a critical factor in the development of capitalism, not only in the U.S. but internationally.

The History of Black America

FROM THE beginning of European settlement in the Americas, slavery played an essential role in the development of capitalism. As Karl Marx wrote, "The veiled slavery of the wage workers in Europe needed, for its pedestal, slavery, pure and simple."

The rapid growth of plantation farming in the American South gave rise to a huge need for laborers to work the fields. These plantations increasingly produced crops for the English market, especially rice, tobacco, indigo and cotton. The latter two raw materials were essential to the burgeoning English textile industry.

Laborers in large numbers were required to work the enormous holdings, and cotton cultivation, in particular, was extremely labor-intensive until modern mechanization in the mid-20th century.

American colonists attacked, with characteristic capitalist energy, the basic problem of providing the necessary labor power to cultivate huge fields and harvest the highly profitable crops. Having tried and failed to find in Indian slaves and indentured servants a stable and sufficiently numerous supply of field hands, planters fell upon African slaves as the ideal workers to exploit.

Later, the Northern industrialists satisfied their demand for labor power by mass "voluntary" immigrations from Europe, as the planters met their demand by forced immigration from Africa. The common interests of these two immigrant laboring populations are clearer today than ever before, however obscured by the ideology of white supremacy and class division perpetrated by the small class which benefits from it.

One of Socialist Worker's earliest features was a monthly series on the history of the African American struggle in the U.S., from slavery to the present day.
All articles in this series

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FROM THE beginnings of the slave system, the capture, marketing and work of slaves was enormously profitable, producing much of the accumulated capital on which the subsequent development of industrial capitalism was based.

In Volume I of Capital, first published in 1867, Karl Marx argued that profits from the slave trade were the most important source of the primitive accumulation of British capital, the first major power in the eventually worldwide system of capitalism.

In simple terms, the slave trade provided the resources which financed the Industrial Revolution in England, and later in America. The acquisition of human slaves, whether through capture or purchase, cost about $50 in Africa. These same slaves were sold in the Americas for up to $400.

As Marx wrote in Capital, the roots of bourgeois "democracy" and capitalism lie in the intense exploitation and enslavement of whole peoples:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement, and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black skins, signalized the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation.

As the English shipmasters and slave traders reaped huge profits from the expanding slave system in the colonies, so too did the Puritan and Quaker shippers of New England. Especially after the British monopoly on "Black ivory" was broken in 1698, New England slave traders rose to prominence as the New World's greatest industrial leaders.

Southern slavery functioned not mainly to produce for the rulers' consumption, as ancient slavery and feudal serfdom had done, but to produce tobacco, cotton and other products for sale on the world market. The slave owner was essentially a capitalist big farmer, despite his use of slave labor. Correspondingly, as the system developed, the slave became a member of the proletariat.

Marx stressed the interrelationship of the factory and plantation systems of exploitation: "Whilst the cotton industry introduced child slavery in England, it gave in the United States a stimulus to the transformation of the earlier, more or less patriarchal slavery, into a system of commercial exploitation."

The crucial rise in profitability of the slave trade during the colonial period helped to found an economic and political alliance between Southern slaveholders and Northern merchant-industrialists, an alliance which for all its contradictions persisted in various forms through the Civil War.

During the whole period of slavery, capitalist merchants and industrialists in the North based their growth on the profits of slavery, as did the plantation "aristocrats" of the South.

From beginning to end, these ruling strata cooperated in building the basic institutional framework for modern American capitalism. This system is today linked through the continued super-exploitation and special oppression of Black workers, and the extraction of surplus value from all workers.

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THE SONS and grandsons of these first exploiters are known today as the Founding Fathers of "our" country. Many of the Northern "founders" had been slaveholders at some point before the War for Independence, and Southern members of the North-South ruling alliance were active slave-masters until the Civil War.

The alliance between exploiters of "free" factory labor and the exploiters of slaves characterized the American ruling system until the Civil War, and the historical peculiarities of this alliance still haunt our society--reflected in the continuing oppression of Black people and the persistent racist attitudes on the part of white workers, which contribute to crucial divisions in the American working class.

Racist ideology has been used since the beginnings of American slavery to justify the conquest of Africa as well as the slave system which it made possible. At first denying that Africans were human, ruling class beneficiaries of Black exploitation and oppression later declared that the slave trade, in fact, liberated the souls of the heathen. Capitalists and planters--as well as their friends in the universities and churches--fattened on the profits of slavery, and white workers were fed the poison of white supremacy to reconcile them to their rulers.

Indeed, English and American churches, almost without exception, gave their blessing to the legal and physical enslavement of Blacks. Respected historians, scientists, politicians, preachers, journalists and novelists--many of whom were themselves slaveholders--systematically pictured Blacks as lacking in traditions, intelligence, arts, history and morality, as biologically inferior to whites, as naturally childlike, submissive, lazy and cowardly.

A 20th century variant on such racist mythologies argues that in spite of the wrongness of slavery, Blacks submitted to its outrages without protest. Yet historical documentation shows that slaves generally seized upon every opportunity to revolt.

Slave-ship captains had no illusions about the "submissiveness" of their captives and regularly took out "insurrection insurance." Slave mutinies, both on board ships and on the plantation, were dreaded by captains and slave owners alike, and elaborate precautions were taken to safeguard the slave system.

The intense cruelty and dehumanization practiced by slave traders and slave owners were essential to keeping the system intact. In reality, slaves were both extremely valuable as instruments of production and capable as human beings of active rebellion and insurrection.

Documentary evidence exists of at least 55 slave mutinies on board ships and more than 250 revolts on American plantations, some to the point of insurrection. These revolts show that human beings will want freedom and fight injustice even in the most desperate conditions and against the greatest odds.

Capitalism could not have been built without the systematic exploitation and oppression of the working class, including, crucially, the super-exploitation and special oppression of Black slaves and their descendants. Right up to the present day, American capitalism depends on racism both materially, for the profits it generates, and ideologically, for the divisions it creates within the working class.

Like Marx, we must understand that the condition of Black people in capitalist America is a life-and-death problem for the whole working class. Workers must see our own class as the key to humanity's future.

The period of slavery and since shows the willingness of Black workers to fight the system that keeps us all down.

White workers have no long-term chance at a decent life while our class is divided by capitalist definitions of supposed superiority/inferiority within our ranks, whether on racial, sexual or any other grounds.

Divided amongst ourselves on any basis, we are all victims. United--on the basis of equality, our collective humanity and our power as producers--the future belongs to us, to every one of us.

First published in the January 1985 issue of Socialist Worker.