A caste system

Slavery in Roman times was not racial. Slaves were not considered subhuman, not even a different kind of human. Their skin color didn’t matter. It could be the same as their masters or not.They were exploited, obviously, but their workload was limited by the needs of their masters. They, and more so their progeny, could often become ‘free’ citizens. By contrast, in capitalist slavery, skin color was all important, the visual justification of the treatment of people as beasts of burden. Only Africans were enslaved, ‘black’ became a synonym for slave. Profit was the driving force. Unlike slaves in antiquity and the middle ages, the modern slaves were exclusively bought as a means to the production of other commodities. As long as the demand for the products of their labor was high, their workload was only limited by their physical strength and often went beyond it.

And the demand was very high. Capitalist slavery was very profitable and so it expanded. The construction of racism, its indispensable ideology (see part 2), created a rigid caste system in the western hemisphere. It was a complex, blood-based hierarchy of Others that dictated that for each caste member, the ceiling was the floor of the caste above his. At the bottom was the African slave. His skin color condemned him to a fate worse than that of the pariah in the Hindu caste system, for he was a mere commodity, a thing.

But a caste system conflicts with capital’s modus operandi, which is based on the commodification of labor power, not of laborers. Capitalism requires labor power to be free to move around like other commodities in search of a buyer. Industrial capitalism is continuously changing, shifting work forces in its many technological revolutions to where they are in demand and spewing them out in times of crisis. As Marx and Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto: “The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them whole relations of society.” They considered all pre-existing economic forms, whether feudal or slavery-based, family farming or tribal (so-called primitive communism), as obstacles to capitalism’s expansion that were doomed to be annihilated by its overwhelming power and by the cheapness of its commodities.

The original sin

Modern slavery was a part of what Marx called the primitive (or original) accumulation of capital. By that he meant the process through which capitalism gathered the means – the capital – it needed for its industrial take off. It is “an accumulation which is not the result of the capitalist mode of production but its point of departure.1 An accumulation based on theft, coercion, dispossession, rather than on the contractual relation between capital and labor and the surplus value extraction it implies. “The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of that continent, the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of blackskins, are all things which characterize the dawn of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation”.2

Colonial plundering provided the monetary growth (gold and silver) and the raw material (in the first place cotton, since the textile industry was the initial motor of capitalism’s expansion) it needed. But what capitalist industry needed most of all was labor to exploit. In the colonies, chattel slavery and other forms of coerced labor was its solution. At home, in the first place in England where the industrial revolution began, it obtained its workforce by violently taking the farmland away from those who lived and worked on it, thereby creating a class of landless proletarians, forced to sell their labor power to survive.

Violence was the hallmark of primitive accumulation. As Marx summarized, “From the very beginning, the forms and laws of capitalist production aim to comprise the entire globe as a store of productive forces. Capital, impelled to appropriate productive forces for the purpose of exploitation, ransacks the whole world. It procures the means of production from all the corners of the earth, seizing them, if necessary by force, from all levels of civilization and from all forms of society.”3

Marx was acutely aware of the role of slavery in the expansion of the world market and industrial capital. In The Poverty of Philosophy he wrote that “direct slavery” in the Americas is “just as much the pivot of bourgeois industry as machinery, credits, etc. Without slavery you have no cotton; without cotton you have no modern industry.” 4 But he considered it a transitional form on which capitalism was still dependent but which soon would be abandoned like a useless crutch. In Grundrisse he stated: “As long as capital is weak, it still relies on the crutches of past modes of production… As soon as it feels strong, it throws away the crutches and moves in accordance with its own laws ”. On several instances he insisted that the most developed countries, where the capital-wage labor relation was rapidly destroying what remained of previous social formations, showed the lesser developed countries what the future had in store for them.

In 1850, in a jointly written article, Marx and Engels repeated that the “crucial sector of British industry” depended on slavery in the American South, but they predicted that “ As soon as the free labour of other countries provides industry with its cotton supplies in sufficient quantity and more cheaply than the slave labor of the United States, American slavery will have been broken at the same time as the American cotton monopoly, and the slaves will be emancipated because as slaves they will have become unusable”.5

Capitalism by its own laws is compelled to reproduce itself continuously on a larger scale, compelled to transform the world in its image. Its full development, Marx and Engels expected, would lead to the generalization of wage labor and the tendential disappearance of all other forms of exploitation.

Looking at what happened since, and at the world today, we can see that reality has confirmed their expectations, but not entirely. It’s true that capitalism has spread to all corners of the earth and in this process has made the vast majority of the world population into proletarians, free to sell their labor power if they can find a buyer, free from ownership of means of production. But it’s also true that other forms of exploitation have persisted and even have grown in recent decades. Contemporary expressions of serf-landlord as well as slave-owner relations.

The permanence of plunder

Marx himself became more nuanced on this question. In his Manuscripts of 1861–1863, speaking of forms in which labor is already exploited by capital before it has taken on the form of wage labor, he writes that such forms are not only transitional or remnants of social formations which precede the capitalist mode of production, but that they also “constantly reproduce themselves within the latter and are in part reproduced by the latter itself”.6

Some Marxists (David Harvey, Loren Goldner and others) consider ‘primitive’ or ‘original’ accumulation a misnomer since it suggests that all forms of accumulation not based on the exploitation of wage labor end, once the capitalist mode of production is fully developed. Instead, they argue, capital accumulation based on coercive dispossession has been a permanent feature of capitalism, which they call “permanent primitive accumulation”. Although these writers tend to stretch the concept of primitive accumulation so wide that its meaning gets lost7, they have a point. Plunder and violent dispossession as means of accumulation never ceased. And neither has coerced labor. The assumption that wage labor is always more profitable (lower cost/ higher output) is demonstrably incorrect. There were never as many slaves as there are today 8 and their number is growing. There is a clear connection between the crisis of capital and the growth of coerced labor. The first command for every capitalist is to make a profit, by any means possible. The lack of opportunities for capital to obtain profit from normal exploitation on a globalized market dominated by giants who have raised the threshold of capital formation for everyone, has increased the incentive to seek profit by other means, any means. Slavery is illegal in every country but enforcement varies and has loosened because it is profitable, because it creates capital where otherwise none would have been created. In fact, the illegality itself yields surplus profits. Capital formation based on coerced labor does not stand outside the bloodstream of capital, it is an integral part of it.9 It expands where ‘normal’ capitalism retreats, and compensates for the latter’s shortage of surplus value creation. Capital does not let any opportunity to make profit go to waste. Like corruption, coerced labor expands where the ‘normal’ rules break down. But its growth is limited by the resistance it provokes, by the general hostility of the working class to it, and by the cold fact that ‘free’ workers are more productive for capital than slaves, whose only incentive is to avoid punishment.

In the treatment of contemporary slaves, caste-based ideologies play an important role. In India, the majority of the slaves are Dalits (Untouchables) and Adivasis (indigenous tribes people). In China the racial otherness of Uyghurs and other minorities justifies locking them up in forced labor camps. There are many other examples all over the world. Including in the most developed countries, the racial otherness of those whose entrapment in poverty makes them victims of extreme exploitation, is used as a barrier to solidarity.

In regard to the slave plantations, historian Robin Blackburn and others use the term “extended primitive accumulation” 10, to indicate that they continued to exist after the industrial take off, and indeed expanded as a result of it. This was especially true for the cotton plantations in the southern US, whose pace of development was closely tied to that of machine industry in England. Compared to other sources of cotton, such as India and Turkey, they were unrestrained by feudal customs and other barriers to market pressure; the maximal extortion of surplus value was all that counted.

Slaves and wage earners

Labor historian Marcel van der Linden11 rejects the assumption that capitalist development and a linear extension of “free” wage labor go hand in hand. Unfree labor has been a permanent feature of capitalism and will not disappear, despite the efforts of NGOs , as long as capitalism exists. To the contrary, it will increase, as the deepening systemic crisis bars more normal paths to profit. Van der Linden turns Marx’s prediction around: today, it’s not the ‘Rest’ that is becoming like the ‘West’, but the other way round. Collective bargaining is being replaced by precariousness. The dividing line between ‘free’ and forced labor is thinning.

An exclusive focus on wage labor implies a reductive concept of the working class that does not account for the variety of social forms in which surplus value is extracted from labor. Instead, van der Linden proposes a focus on the interaction and combination between practices of exploitation and social struggle of “free” and unfree laborers.

This is something Marx was very much concerned with, especially in the last decades of his life. While he never lost sight of the differences between social forms of different modes of production, he also emphasized what they had in common, the continuity of the exploitation of labor throughout the history of class society. In regard to the forms of exploitation in his own time, rather than seeing slave production and wage labor production as two entities inhabiting their separate spheres, he stressed their similarity, their combination and interaction. For Marx, the apparent freedom granted by the market to the worker to choose which capitalist will exploit him, results in the collective subjection of the working class to capital in general. The relationship between the capitalist and the worker during the production process is not one of equal interaction between two free agents, but one of “despotism.”12 As is the case in slavery, the function of this despotism is to minimize the time in which the laborer produces the necessary goods (or their equivalent in money) for his or her own upkeep and that of their family, and to maximize the time worked “for nothing” for the master/employer. In both cases, capital extracts surplus value from labor performed in commodity production. So workers and slaves face the same enemy whose drive to increase their exploitation can only be checked by collective class struggle.

As Marx witnessed in his time, the actual difference between free and unfree labor can become quite narrow in capitalism. He considered child labor, prevalent then and still existing today, a form of slavery. Young children and pregnant or nursing mothers had to work long hours. Hunger rather than the whip was the goad to labor. Engels documented the misery of the factory proletariat in Manchester and Liverpool in The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845) and even made the claim, that, in the early wave of industrialization, “the fate of the slaves in the worst of the American plantations was golden in comparison with that of the English workers.”13

That may sound outrageous, even racist today, but it was not that wild an exaggeration. The value of wage labor is determined, like that of any commodity, including slaves, by the value of its reproduction cost, and thus by the needs of the workers. But when it can, capital pushes the wage below that value, below the cost of survival conditions. This is not in its advantage when it has incurred a substantial cost in training the worker or slave, or when the supply of workers/slaves is tight. But that was not the case in the early days of the industrial revolution when there was a plentiful supply of dispossessed from the depopulating countryside to feed the factories. They were easily replaceable at no extra cost, so capitalists made them work as long as possible for as little as possible. Working 14 hours a day, lacking food, being forced to live in disease-spreading conditions is a recipe for premature death. In Capital Vol 114 Marx points out that, if not forced to accept some limits to exploitation, capitalist production tends to extend the working day to the point of killing workers. In this, he argues, the capitalists behave like slave owners, who, as long as the transatlantic slave trade provided an ample influx of new human chattel, valued an increase in productivity above the length of the life of the easily replaceable slaves.

The owners of the English textile factories and the owners of the cotton plantations thought in [delete – the] exactly the same way. They made the same cost-benefit analysis with the same murderous results. Nothing personal, just business.

In the early 19th century the transatlantic slave trade became illegal15, which didn’t stop it, but did put a big dent in the supply of slaves while the demand was rising, as the cotton plantations were expanding to meet the growing demand of industry. Hence the price of slaves rose steeply, which changed the calculus. Since slaves became more valuable possessions, the cost of replacement was much higher which gave their owners an incentive to lengthen their productive life, and therefore to improve their conditions somewhat. It also made it in the planters’ interest to encourage slaves to have children and thus to treat expecting women and new mothers better. Consequently, infant mortality was lower on the cotton plantations than in the industrial districts of England. The average height of slaves rose because of better nutrition, while the average height of recruits of the British army declined in the early industrial period (1780-1850). So Engels may have been right concerning the material conditions of survival. But his hyperbolic statement ignores that there remains a fundamental difference between having to sell one’s labor power on horrible terms and being reduced to a thing, owned forever.

But the wage laborers in the factories and the slave laborers in the plantations were part of the same process: the accumulation of capital. Marx was very interested in their combination and interaction. “Just as the nature of slave labor changed when it came under the indirect (through the market) or direct (through the ownership of plantations) control of the capitalist, so wage labor absorbed practices that had been developed in slavery. This is clearest in Marx’s treatment of the role of superintendence or “labor for the exploitation of labor” in factory production. While Marx again does not let go of the fundamental distinction between wage labor and slavery, he stresses that the role of the supervisor in the factory is closer to that of the slave supervisor than to that of the master of the workshops that dominated urban production in Europe before the Industrial Revolution. In the latter case, discipline was enforced through the master’s own participation in the work process. By contrast, a sharp division of labor between the capitalist and the overseer would come to characterize the factory hierarchy. More than that of the workshop master, the “relations of subordination” and “regimentation” of the factory were a continuation of the relations between the “working Negro slaves” and the “slave-driving Negro slaves” on the plantation.16

The plantations existed before the factories and inspired the latter’s organization. Blackburn writes: “By gathering the workers under one roof, and subordinating them to one discipline, the new industrial employers were able to garner the profits of industrial co-operation and invigilation – as it were adapting the plantation model (which is why people came to speak of steel ‘plants’).”17

The same struggle

The limits to exploitation forced upon capitalism have but one cause: resistance of the working class. It’s true that the development of capitalism itself brought changes in the conditions of the working class, even without any struggle of the latter. Consumer goods became cheaper, more accessible. Capital became increasingly dependent on (more valuable) skilled labor. Technological change shifted its focus from lengthening the work day to the intensification of the labor process (in Marxist terms: from the extraction of absolute surplus value to relative surplus value). But the shortening of the work day, eventually to 8 hours, where it got stuck, was the result of fierce battles of the industrial proletariat (more on those later).

Comparing themselves to industrial capitalists, the owners of the slave plantations thought they had one big advantage: a docile workforce. The docility was violently imposed, of course, and despite the odds stacked against them, slaves often resisted 18 The docile slave was a racist stereotype, a myth that conflicted increasingly with reality. Slave acts of rebellion, sabotage and escape were growing in the early 19th century. The 1811 Louisiana Slave Revolt started with a slave rebellion on one plantation. The speed in which slaves from other plantations rushed out to join them when they marched on New Orleans must have been scary for all slave owners. The rebels burned plantations, crops, and storehouses before eventually being defeated.

The distance between the plantations, in contrast to the proximity of the factories in the industrial cities, was a big obstacle to common struggle. An even bigger obstacle was the racial caste system, splitting the proletariat. As long as that endures, Marx wrote, labor will never be emancipated.19

Despite these obstacles, acts of slave resistance became more numerous. After the defeat of the workers revolts and radical movements in 1848-1849 in Europe, Marx pinned his hope on the struggles of the serfs in Russia and of the slaves in the southern US. In 1860 he wrote to Engels: “In my view, the most momentous thing happening in the world today is the slave movement—on the one hand, in America…, and in Russia, on the other… Thus, a “social” movement has been started both in the West and in the East … This promises great things”.20

By then he was convinced that the southern slave-based economy, and the caste- system that went with it, fitted so well into the capitalist production chain that it would not be automatically extinguished by its development, not any time soon. That made him an enthusiastic supporter of the North in the American civil war.


In the next part of this text we’ll examine how class and caste evolved during and after the civil war.

1Capital, Volume 1, chapter 26, p.875 (Penguin ed.)

2Ibid, chapter 31, p. 915

3Capital vol 3, p. 257

4. MECW 6, p. 167

5 MECW 10, p. 500–501

6 MECW 34, 117 / MEGA 2II.3.6, 2152.

7See our critical review of Goldner’s position in RAPING THE WORLD TO FEED THE BUBBLE

8The estimated number of slaves today range from around 22 million to 46 million (1 in 4 of them children), depending on the methods used to estimate and define slavery. The higher number includes all forms of coerced labor, including those limited in time, thus similar to indentured service rather than chattel slavery (but the latter persist as well). Slavery exists in every single country in the world. According to the Global Slavery Index, the countries with the highest absolute numbers of people in modern slavery are India, China, and Pakistan, countries with large numbers of hungry people superfluous to capital. But forced labor also exists in Europe and America, like in the US prison system, both the government-run and the private prisons. The prison labor industry makes over $1 billion per year in the US. So-called “communist” countries also score high on the slavery-scale. The Global Slavery Index estimates there are 3.8 million slaves in China and 2.6 million in North-Korea. Globally, forced labor is estimated to generate $150 billion each year. The sectors in which it is most prevalent are agriculture, construction, mining, fishery, textile factories, domestic work and sex work.

9More on this in RESURGENCE

10See : Robin Blackburn: The Making of New Wold Slavery, Verso 1997, chapter 12: New World Slavery, Primitive Accumulation and British Industrialization

11 Marcel van der Linden, Workers of the World. Essays towards a Global Labor History (Leiden and Boston, 2008)

12 MECW 35, 362.

13 MECW 10, 291.

14 Chapter 3, Section 4

15More on this in part 4 of this text.

16 Pepijn Brandon: “With the Name Changed, the Story Applies to You!”: Connections between Slavery and “Free” Labor in the Writings of Marx”. ( An essay that informed this article )

17Robin Blackburn, op.cit., p.565

18 More on the history of slave struggles in the next part of this text.

19 “Le travail, tant qu’il est flétri dans la peau noire, ne sera jamais émancipé dans la peau blanche” (labor in white skin will never be emancipated, where in black skin it is branded]).Marx to Lafargue, and Capital, vol 1, MEGA 2II.5, 239.

20 Marx to Engels, 11 January 1860, MECW 41, 4.

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