Slavery abolished! But the struggle continues

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This month marks the 200th anniversary of the official abolition of slavery and the passing of the Slave Trade Act, which made the capture, and transport of slaves by British subjects unlawful.

While slavery itself remained legal in the Empire until 1834, the Act marked the effective winding down of a 250-year old trade in human life, not just in Britain but amongst all countries. Slavery is remembered for its almost unimaginable brutality, of the forced transport of people from West Africa to the Americas, and after surviving that ordeal, the terrible conditions of slave labour on the plantations. Unknown numbers of people - according to some estimates at least 4 million - died in slave wars and forced marches. More perished on the voyages across the Atlantic.

The slave trade inflicted tremendous suffering on millions of people - this much is clear, and should not be forgotten. Viewed from a world historical perspective, its importance in shaping the modern world goes far beyond a sorry story of human misery and suffering. For the rising bourgeoisie, especially in Britain, the slave trade played a pivotal role in the expansion of the global market and the creation of the modern world capitalism. In the words of Marx, capitalism was born "dripping with blood from every pore."

British involvement in the trade began around the middle of the sixteenth century, where rich merchants and pirates rushed to capitalise on the trade. In its formative years, Africans were captured and made into slaves by raiding parties from the ships that were to transport them across the Atlantic. Later, this became the first side of the "triangular trade"- manufactured goods from Europe being traded for slaves already held in Africa. Hundreds of thousands of firearms were imported to Africa, and the rivalries of Europe were translated into wars between the kingdoms and chiefdoms of African tribes. Such imperialist meddling greatly increased the supply of slaves, which, of course, cheapened the cost of these human commodities. As Marx explained, capitalism is first and foremost the production of commodities, and slaves became regarded as commodities in much the same way as shoes.

Dilemma

Confronted by the power of the European capitalist nations, those Africans who collaborated in the slave trade were faced with the dilemma: either provide slaves or become slaves themselves. Having transported their human cargo to the Americas, the slavers would return home with the products of slave-labour such as sugar, tobacco and cotton. Liverpool became a key port for the slave trade in Britain.

Slaves were considered the property of their owners. They had no rights or liberties as human beings. They were simply treated as work horses by their owners. As property of their owner, they had to be "maintained" - kept alive and in a suitable condition to work. But slave labour, although profitable, had its limits - a factor which would come in to play as time wore on. Slaves who simply received their subsistence, the lowest reward for their labour power, were also the least productive and had the shortest life span. As things stood the average life expectancy of a plantation slave was only 7 to 10 years. But work on the giant plantations of the Americas was suited to such labour. The indigenous labour force had been largely exterminated by disease and the bloodlust of the imperialist invaders so there was a ready demand for humans who could do the terrible work required of them by the new plantocracy. Of course, escape had to be deterred - slaves could not be put to work too near their homelands. So crossing the Atlantic was a long but necessary journey for the slave traders. Although, the costs of their transport were high, with many losing their lives on the arduous journey, their sweated labour was sufficient to make handsome profits for their new owners. Nevertheless resistance and revolt on the part of the slaves would be common throughout the whole history of slavery - an heroic struggle largely airbrushed out of official histories which would concentrate instead merely on the do-gooders campaign back in England as the main factor in the abolition of the slave trade and later slavery itself. These revolts would always be suppressed with a brutality and sadism beyond anything you would think possible from so-called civilised people. That slaves would continue to rebel is a testimony to their courage and bravery in the face of insurmountable odds. The great Haitian revolution of 1791 in the French colony of St. Domingue, led by Toussaint L'Ouverture (and brilliantly described in C.L.R. James' classic work 'The Black Jacobins) remains the most famous of such uprisings.

The bare statistics of slavery are appalling but sometimes it is more telling to concentrate on a single story. William Wells Brown was born in Kentucky in 1814 and worked on a series of plantations before he escaped. He relates a glimpse of the humiliating life of a slave and his family. "A woman was also kept at the quarters to do the cooking for the field hands, who were summoned to their unrequited toil every morning, at four o'clock, by the ringing of a bell, hung on a post near the house of the overseer. They were allowed half an hour to eat their breakfast, and get to the field. At half past four a horn was blown by the overseer, which was the signal to commence work; and every one that was not on the spot at the time, had to receive ten lashes from the negro-whip, with which the overseer always went armed. The handle was about three feet long, with the butt-end filled with lead, and the lash, six or seven feet in length, made of cow-hide, with platted wire on the end of it. This whip was put in requisition very frequently and freely, and a small offence on the part of a slave furnished an occasion for its use.

Mr. Cook

"During the time that Mr. Cook was overseer, I was a house servant -- a situation preferable to that of a field hand, as I was better fed, better clothed, and not obliged to rise at the ringing of the bell, but about half an hour after. I have often laid and heard the crack of the whip, and the screams of the slave. My mother was a field hand, and one morning was ten or fifteen minutes behind the others in getting into the field. As soon as she reached the spot where they were at work, the overseer commenced whipping her. She cried, "Oh! pray - Oh! pray - Oh! pray" - these are generally the words of slaves, when imploring mercy at the hands of their oppressors. I heard her voice, and knew it, and jumped out of my bunk, and went to the door. Though the field was some distance from the house, I could hear every crack of the whip, and every groan and cry of my poor mother. I remained at the door, not daring to venture any further. The cold chills ran over me, and I wept aloud. After giving her ten lashes, the sound of the whip ceased, and I returned to my bed, and found no consolation but in my tears. Experience has taught me that nothing can be more heart-rending than for one to see a dear and beloved mother or sister tortured, and to hear their cries, and not be able to render them assistance. But such is the position which an American slave occupies."

The development of British capitalism was partly financed by the profits from the slave trade where it would long enjoy a monopoly. Britain was one of the first to enter the road of capitalist development and established herself as a world power as a result. The British Empire was a tremendous source of raw materials, including slaves, and a ready made market for British goods. The British ruling class was nevertheless very concerned about Africans obtaining too much knowledge for fear that they may become competitors. In 1751 the British Board of Trade advised the Governor of Cape Castle (a trading settlement and fort where slaves would be held prior to transit):

"The introduction of culture and industry among the Negroes is contrary to the known established policy of this country, there is no saying where they might stop, and that it might extend to tobacco, sugar and every other commodity which we now take from out colonies; and thereby the Africans, who now support themselves by wars, would become planters and their slaves be employed in the culture of these articles from Africa, which they are employed in America."

New market

The slave-trade gave a huge new market to a trade that already existed. There were massive fortunes to be made. John Hawkins, one of the first British slave traders returned home an extremely rich man. Later slaver traders provided returns of 50-100% or more on investments. The nature of the cargo being transported, human beings, and the uncertainties of supply, meant that profitability sometimes fluctuated, but was still higher than domestic returns. Much of the British ruling class were at least indirectly involved in the slave trade. Through the holding and dealing of shares in slave trading companies, ports such as Liverpool, Bristol, Portsmouth and Lancaster, built their regional influence and economic importance on the existence of the trade. Those companies that participated in the slave trade were an important part of the industrial revolution that took place in Britain - the gains made on the trade were ploughed back into other industrial enterprises. Marx wrote that:

"It is slavery which has given value to the colonies, it is the colonies which have created world trade, and world trade is the necessary condition for large-scale machine industry. Consequently, prior to the slave trade, the colonies sent very few products to the Old World, and did not noticeably change the face of the world."

Although the slave trade was abolished 200 years ago, slavery still continued in many parts of the world, including the United States, where it would remain in the southern states up to the Civil War. It played its part in the "primitive accumulation" of capitalist development. The tendency has always been to present the abolition of the slave trade as yet more evidence of the 'basic decency and morality' of the British character and, by extension, the British Empire.

Abolitionist movement

We should not forget, of course, the huge pressure that was brought to bear on the British state by the abolitionist movement, both at home and in the colonies - a movement which included many radicals. But we should also be clear that abolition was largely a commercial decision made by a class which invariably considered the 'lower orders' as a workshy bunch worthy only of pity at best, contempt at worse. They had become tired and frightened of the constant threat of slave revolution in their colonies but also saw the new opportunities available to them. As A.L.Morton notes in his classic work 'A People's History of England' (available online from Wellred Books): 'Profitable as the slave trade proved during the 18th century, its suppression in the 19th century was even more profitable.' Few tears were shed by the ruling class for the loss of the slave market in the West Indies since slavery there was becoming uneconomic anyway as the plantation owners turned instead to the almost equally brutal but cheaper (and for them safer) practice of wage slavery in which workers were paid a pittance for their sweated labour. The great slave revolt of 1831 in Jamaica (following on from those in Barbados in 1816 and Demerara in 1823) was the last straw for an already heavily outnumbered and beleaguered white settler population. Where forced labour was still required the 'exporting' of prisoners remained an option for Britain, France and others. The military forces of the British empire now set to work on the 'moral task' of hunting down slave traders and in doing so, of course, also set about invading and conquering the interior of Africa redrawing the maps in their interest. The ruthless and bloody exploitation of that continent had begun. As Perfidious Albion tightened its grip also on India, Arabia and the Far East, so begun the great century of intrigue, divide and rule, brutality and occupation which would obsess all the great European powers including France, Belgium but most of all Britain. The effects of this are still being felt today. No wonder the great Chartist writer Ernest Jones would be moved to write in 1851 about the British Empire: ' On its colonies the sun never sets, but the blood never dries.'

Slavery still exists

25_girl_bricksToday, slavery takes many forms. The traditional form of slavery still exists of course in many parts of the world, hidden from view but there nevertheless. Forced labour (including that of children) remains common in countries such as Pakistan, despite the supposed protection of the law and a raft of useless international declarations. The scourge of human trafficking and forced prostitution have become an extremely profitable enterprise, especially with the re-introduction of capitalism in Russia and Eastern Europe. Marx explained that while chattel slavery was officially abolished, wage slavery become the dominant form of exploitation under capitalism. Workers no longer own the means of production and are forced to sell their labour power from week to week. Few are able to escape from this relationship. While the slave trade has been partly abolished, the task now before us is to abolish wage slavery by the overthrow of capitalism and the construction of a socialist society. Only then will humankind become really free.

Educate Yourself

  • Educate Yourself
  • The Fundamentals of Marxism
  • Dialectical Materialism and Science
  • Historical Materialism
  • Marxist Economics
  • The State
  • Russia, Lenin, Trotsky and Stalinism
  • Anarchism
  • Feminism
  • Fascism
  • The National Question
  • Revolutionary Strategy
  • Revolutionary History

Socialist Appeal are proud to publish this basic guide to help focus your studies of Marxist theory and practice. Visit the various tabs to find links to introductory articles, classic texts, and audio talks for different topics. We also invite our readers to become acquainted with the more basic ideas of Marxism by starting with the recommended short reading list, going through the FAQ section, reading this article that combats the myths about Marxism, and listening to the following audios:

Why Marx Was Right - Alan Woods

What is Marxism? - Alan Woods

What Will Socialism Look Like? - Fred Weston

What is Socialism? - Rob Sewell

We will be expanding and developing this section over time. Please contact us if you have any questions, or if you'd like any suggestions on what to read next.

Reading the classics of Marxism is the best way to understand these ideas. At first it may seem difficult, but every worker and young person knows that things worth having are worth working hard for!  Patient and persistent study, discussion, and ultimately, the day to day application of these ideas over a lifetime are the key.

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Marxist theory is the basis upon which our analysis, perspectives, program, and participation in the movement are based. It is our "guide to action." This why Socialist Appeal and IMT place so much emphasis on political education. To this end, we have created an extensive Education Plan to assist comrades in their political development. This is an important resource.

However, it's length and scope may seem daunting to new comrades. With this in mind, Socialist Appeal has compiled a shorter list of classic works and other important writings we think will serve to lay a strong foundation in the ideas and methods of Marxism. We would like to encourage all our supporters and those interested in learning more about Marxism to read (or re-read!) through the works on this list.

This selection of writings is an excellent introduction to many of the fundamentals of Marxist theory. There are many other writings that could be added, but this selection provides a strong basis for those wishing to equip themselves with the necessary ideas for the daily work of fighting for socialism.

Many of these are smaller books or pamphlets; some are more lengthy books; and others are just short articles. This

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Dialectical Materialism is the philosophy or methodology of Marxism. Every political movement, party, or even statement of any kind bases itself, consciously or unconsciously, on some sort of philosophy or world outlook. Marxism is concerned with effecting a radical change in society, and therefore requires an exceptionally clear, thoroughgoing, and systemic set of philosophical principles.

The ideas of Dialectical Materialism, based on the best traditions of philosophical thought, are not a fixed dogma but a system of tools and general principles for analysing the world materialistically and scientifically.

If we are to understand society in order to change it, this cannot be done arbitrarily, since the human will is not master of nature; rather, our ideas and thoughts are reflections of necessary material laws. Instead, we must seek to understand the laws of how human society changes. By following our education plan for Dialectical Materialism, the reader will familiarise themselves with this way of looking at the world so that they too can begin to apply Marxist ideas.

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Historical Materialism is the result of Dialectical Materialism applied to human society and history. It encompasses the general theory of how and why society develops in the way it does. A deeper, more concrete understanding of these principles in combination with a study of real, living history of class struggles enables us to come to a general understanding of where capitalist society is headed and what political strategy is required to successfully influence the course of events.

The basic principles of Historical Materialism are that human society has inherent laws guiding it - its developments are by no means arbitrary or accidental, nor the mere subject of the will of great men and ideas. Human individuals can and do influence society according to their ideas, but only ever within definite material constraints and conditions. Above all, the law determining historical development is that of the development of the means of production - meaning economically productive technology, science, technique etc. The extent of the development of the productive forces determines the social relations of production - i.e. the structure of society, class relations etc. Each social system has its inherent laws of motion. If we want to overthrow capitalist society, we must understand how

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Marxist economics is the study of the laws of motion of capitalist society. Why does capitalism perpetually go into crisis? Why does mass unemployment exist? Are commodity production, the domination of the market, and rich and poor natural, immutable states of being for humanity? Or are they merely the products of this specific mode of production - capitalism? If so, is there any way capitalism can exist without these problems, or by minimising them?

Marxist economics is a “holistic” way of analysing capitalist economy. It starts out by placing it in its real historical context (rather than dreaming up abstract idealisations of capitalism to justify it, as bourgeois economics does), studying all its interconnections and contradictions, rather than artificially isolating one aspect of it. In doing so, Marxist economics lays bare the functioning of capitalism; the exploitation and injustice inherent within it. Those who want to get to the essence of why, in the 21st Century, despite having a more advanced understanding of the world than ever before, humanity seems plunged into perpetual crisis it cannot get to grips with, should look no further than Marxist economics, beginning with the writings of Marx himself.

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Like money, the state is something we are all very familiar with and take for granted, but its real essence tends to elude us. The ideologists of capitalism have tried, in various ways, to justify the capitalist state as supremely rational; a neutral arbiter for society, and the embodiment of justice. For Marxists, the state is not at all neutral, nor just. It is certainly anything but rational. We must strip the vale of mysticism away and reveal the state’s real basis. To do that, we have to treat the state historically - taking in its origins, rise, and eventual fall.

The state has not always existed. It is inseparable from class society. Ultimately, it is the instrument for the ruling class to oppress and hold down the masses, guaranteeing the status quo and the sanctity of property. Although the modern state performs many other functions, these are secondary to its real basis - the protection of a set of property relations. To do this, it needs “armed bodies of men” and a monopoly on the use of violence. To establish socialism, it will not be possible for the working class to use the state as it currently exists - that is, with

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The Russian Revolution is the greatest event in world history for Marxists. For the first time, the working class successfully took and held power. The slaves fought back and won. For these reasons, the name of Lenin and Trotsky, and the entire 1917 episode, has been deliberately dragged through the mud by the bourgeoisie ever since.

Naturally they are aided in this task by the degeneration of the revolution and by the existence of Stalin’s monstrous dictatorship. However, Stalinism represents the opposite of Bolshevism’s real traditions, which readers can read about in this section, as well as the Marxist explanation for why Stalinism took place and what this means for our movement.

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Radicalised youth, seeking to understand how to change modern society, naturally tend to look to both Marxism and Anarchism in equal measure. The question as to which philosophy, or which combination of the two, has the best answers, has long been at the forefront of the minds of revolutionaries.

Anarchism is naturally attractive to all those correctly alienated by bureaucracy in the revolutionary movement. Anarchists are certainly correct to reject Stalinism and careerism. However, it is not sufficient simply to reject these phenomena. We need to understand why bureaucracy and oppression exist and what role they play, in order to understand how to avoid them. We believe that, for all its opposition, Anarchism has little to say about the alternative to bureaucracy. Instead, it is Marxism’s historical materialist method that allows us to understand these problems. In this section the reader will find a series of articles dealing with anarchism and the issues that anarchism raises.

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The discrimination and oppression of women is integral to class society, such that Engels even referred to it as the “first class oppression”. Along with the class system itself, the oppression of women often takes on the appearance of being natural, immutable and eternal, since it has been with us for so long.

But Marxism is a historical science, concerned with understanding the fundamental changes that society goes through. It cannot be satisfied with comfortable prejudices. A study of the origins of human society, as Engels famously conducted in his book The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, reveals that the oppression of women is by no means natural and was not even known for much of our history. As Engels explains, the oppression of women arose with the emergence of class society and private property; it will fall with it.

Marxists are fully in solidarity with feminists: we are irreconcilably opposed to the oppression of women and fully support the struggle for their emancipation. We believe this will be achieved through the class struggle, since that is the basic locomotive of history in a class society such as ours. However, Marxism represents a distinct set of

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Fascism is something of a bogeyman in modern British society, and has an almost mythical character in bourgeois public opinion. But despite constant talk of it, very little is said about why it happened and how it may or may not happen again.

Fascism is really the death agony of capitalism and the “distilled essence of imperialism”. The fascists in Germany, Italy, Spain and other countries were only able to come to power on the back of defeats of the working class. Ultimately, the madness of fascism expresses the historic crisis and dead-end of capitalism that had arrived by the early 20th Century, alongside the inability of the working class to take power and replace capitalism with a workers’ state, due to the corruption of their leadership, in the form of both reformism and Stalinism. Fascism could and should have easily been avoided had the working class possessed a militant and united leadership prepared to take power.

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The question of nationalities - that is, the oppression of nations and national minorities, which has characterised capitalism from its birth till the present time - has always occupied a central position in Marxist theory. Once again, the historical materialist approach of Marxism dissolves the apparent “natural” role of the nation as a necessary expression of human society. Nations have by no means always existed, nor will they always exist in the future.

The nation as we know it today is a product of the development of capitalism and its need to unify peoples into units of a certain size (depending on the level of the system’s development – e.g. more recently formed nations tend to be much bigger) to consolidate the market. The contradictions and tensions between nations are a result of capitalism’s “combined and uneven” development. The contradictions of the capitalist mode of production itself force each ruling class to expand outwards, developing a global market and imperialism in the process.

The violent tensions that this process breeds in turn give rise to nationalism, racism and wars. There is no way a successful world revolution, abolishing the global capitalist system, can take place without a careful and nuanced understanding of the

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Socialist Appeal is the British section of the International Marxist Tendency, which is active in around 40 countries. Our aim is to spread the ideas of Marxism, in an organised fashion, in the labour and youth movement. Only the British working class has the ability to change British society, because of the central role they play in production and their shared interest in establishing socialism.

However, we must carefully study the history and traditions of the British working class in order for Marxist ideas to connect with them. There are all too many groups who simply declare themselves the vanguard of the British working class, and have a dismissive attitude to the class’ real traditions.

In this section readers will find a series of articles explaining our position on the class struggle in Britain, the key points in the history of the British working class and the lessons to be learnt from them, and the strategy of the Marxists in relation to the movements of the masses.

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The ideas of Marxism and the need for a revolutionary party are not the result simply of a single individual, but arise from the study of history - the history of class struggle. In this respect, the revolutionary party is often referred to as being the memory of the working class, and our task is to learn the lessons from history in order to prepare for the revolutionary events taking place today and in the future.

In this section we present a series of articles and audios covering the key revolutionary struggles in history - from the early class struggles in Rome to the tremendous movements of the working class in the 20th Century. By reading and listening to these, our readers should gain a good overview of the history of the revolutionary movement and the main lessons to be learnt from these.

For analysis of 21st Century revolutionary movements, check out the News and Analysis sections of the website!

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Marxist theory

Marxism and Feminism Marxism and Feminism
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World War One and Imperialism World War One and Imperialism
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French Revolution of May 1968 French Revolution of May 1968
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Russia: From Revolution to Counter-Revolution Russia: From Revolution to Counter-Revolution
Duration: 01:46:35
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Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State
Duration: 01:12:16
Date: 27 Sep 2013
Marx Walk - The Life of Karl Marx in London Marx Walk - The Life of Karl Marx in London
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The Italian hot autumn of 1969 The Italian hot autumn of 1969
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Crisis of Capitalism (by Alan Woods) Crisis of Capitalism (by Alan Woods)
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Marxism and Science Marxism and Science
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Date: 7 Mar 2013
Karl Marx and the First International Karl Marx and the First International
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The Relevance of Marxism Today The Relevance of Marxism Today
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