What Marx Understood About Slavery

Kevin B. Anderson

Summary: Marx theorized the particularly capitalist character of New World slavery and resistance by enslaved people in relationship to capital and labor as a whole. First appeared in Jacobin on September 5, 2019, here: https://jacobinmag.com/2019/09/slavery-united-states-civil-war-marx — Editors

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This year marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in Virginia. Although this grim event is now being discussed in profound and penetrating ways, few in the mainstream media are noting the particularly capitalist character of the New World’s modern form of slavery — a theme that runs through Marx’s critique of capital and his extensive discussions of capitalism and slavery.

Marx did not view the large-scale enslavement of Africans by Europeans, which began in the early sixteenth century in the Caribbean, as a repeat of Roman or Arab slavery, but as something new. It combined ancient forms of brutality with the quintessentially modern social form of value production. Slavery, he wrote in a draft for Capital, reaches “its most hateful form … in a situation of capitalist production,” where “exchange value becomes the determining element of production.” This leads to the extension of the workday beyond all limit, literally working enslaved people to death.

Whether in South America, the Caribbean, or the plantations of the southern United States, slavery was not a peripheral but a central part of modern capitalism. As the young Marx theorized this relationship in 1846 in The Poverty of Philosophy, two years before the Communist Manifesto:

Direct slavery is as much the pivot upon which our present-day industrialism turns, as are machinery, credit, etc. Without slavery there would be no cotton, without cotton there would be no modern industry. It is slavery that has given value to the colonies, it is the colonies that have created world trade, and world trade is the necessary condition for large-scale machine industry. Slavery is therefore an economic category of paramount importance.

Such linkages between capitalism and slavery permeated the whole of Marx’s writings. But he also considered how various forms of resistance to slavery could contribute to anticapitalist resistance. This was especially the case before and during the US Civil War, when he fervently supported the anti-slavery cause.

One form of resistance Marx considered was that of enslaved African Americans. For example, he took very seriously the epochal 1859 attack on an arsenal at Harper’s Ferry by anti-slavery militants, both black and white, under the command of radical abolitionist John Brown. While the attack failed to touch off the slave insurrection the militants had hoped for, Marx agreed with other abolitionists that it was a momentous event, after which there would be no going back. But he added both an international comparison to Russian peasants and a stress on the self-activity of enslaved African Americans, on their ongoing potential for mass insurrection:

In my view, the most momentous thing happening in the world today is, on the one hand, the movement among the slaves in America, started by the death of Brown, and the movement among the slaves in Russia, on the other … I have just seen in the Tribune that there was a new slave uprising in Missouri, naturally suppressed. But the signal has now been given.

At this juncture, Marx seemed to perceive a mass slave insurrection as the key to abolition, and perhaps something more in terms of challenging the capitalist order itself. Soon after, as the South seceded and the Civil War broke out, he turned his support to the Northern cause, albeit with searing attacks on Lincoln for his initial hesitancy to advocate, let alone enact, either the abolition of slavery or the enlistment of black troops.

During the war, a second form of resistance to capitalism and slavery emerged, not in the United States, but in Britain. While that country’s dominant classes ridiculed the United States as a failed experiment in republican government and even attacked the plebeian Lincoln as uncouth, the British working classes saw things differently. Still battling for the franchise in the face of steep property qualifications, the workers saw the United States as the widest form of democracy that existed at the time, especially after the North committed itself to abolition.

As Marx reported in several articles, mass meetings organized by British workers helped to block government attempts to intervene on the side of the South. In this magnificent example of proletarian internationalism, British workers rejected attempts by various politicians to foment animosity toward the North on the basis that Union blockades had curtailed cotton supplies, thus creating mass unemployment among the textile workers of Lancashire. As Marx intoned in an 1862 article for the New York Tribune,

When a great portion of the British working classes directly and severely suffers under the consequences of the Southern blockade; when another part is indirectly smitten by the curtailment of the American commerce, owing, as they are told, to the selfish “protective policy” of the [US] Republicans … under such circumstances, simple justice requires to pay a tribute to the sound attitude of the British working classes, the more so when contrasted with the hypocritical, bullying, cowardly, and stupid conduct of the official and well-to-do John Bull.

By 1864, the First International had been formed, with many of its early activists drawn from among the organizers these anti-slavery meetings. In this sense, a working-class anti-slavery movement helped to form the largest socialist organization that Marx was to lead during his lifetime.

Once the war was over, Radical Reconstruction was on the agenda in the United States, including the prospect of dividing up the former slave plantations in favor of grants of forty acres and a mule to formerly enslaved people. In the 1867 preface to Capital, Marx celebrated these developments: “After the abolition of slavery, a radical transformation in the existing relations of capital and landed property is on the agenda.” This was not to be, as the measure was blocked by moderate forces in the US Congress.

In the wake of the Civil War, Marx discussed a third form of resistance to capitalism and slavery, but also to racism, again inside the United States. As he saw it, centuries of black slave labor alongside formally free white labor had created huge divisions among the working people, both urban and rural. The Civil War had swept away some of the economic basis for those divisions, creating new possibilities. Again in Capital, he discussed these possibilities with evident relish, also penning his most notable line about the dialectics of race and class, here italicized:

“In the United States of America, every independent workers’ movement was paralyzed as long as slavery disfigured a part of the republic. Labor in a white skin cannot emancipate itself where it is branded in a black skin. However, a new life immediately arose from the death of slavery. The first fruit of the American Civil War was the eight hours agitation, which ran from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from New England to California, with the seven-league boots of a locomotive. The General Congress of Labor held at Baltimore in August 1866 declared: “The first and great necessity of the present, to free the labor of this country from capitalistic slavery, is the passing of a law by which eight hours shall be the normal working day in all the states of the American Union. We are resolved to put forth all our strength until this glorious result is attained.”

To be sure, the trade union leaders of 1866 were willing to target capitalism directly, something not seen very often afterwards in the United States. However, Marx’s dream of cross-racial class solidarity was not achieved at that time, due to a reluctance to include black workers as full members on the part of the white trade unions. The kind of cross-racial solidarity Marx envisioned has emerged a few times since then on a large scale, most notably in the mass unionization drives of the 1930s.

Four hundred years after enslaved Africans first arrived in Virginia, African Americans continue to experience the legacy of slavery in conditions of mass incarceration, institutionalized racism in both housing and employment, and a growing wealth gap.

At the same time, we are faced with the most reactionary, anti-labor administration in our history, an administration that foments and feeds upon the foulest racism and misogyny to gain support among sections of the middle and working classes. In this light, Marx’s declaration, “Labor in a white skin cannot emancipate itself where it is branded in a black skin,” remains a motto that is as relevant today as it was 150 years ago.


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  1. Tussy

    In the Chapter on Rate of Surplus-Value in Vol 1 of Capital, Marx seems to describes how, no matter the form of society, whether chattel slavery or wage-slavery, its the rate of exploitation that counts. This depends upon the ratio between, the cost of keeping slaves or workers alive and reproducing themselves, (food, housing, clothes) and the amount of labour extracted over and above this. Within the Capitalist production process, as fast as this surplus-labour is congealed and objectified as surplus-value, it has to be re-invested in machinery/high tech/robots to stay competitive, yet its only living labour that can transform itself from stagnant dead labour ie variable capital, the purchase of labour-power for a specific constant amount, into a flowing moving power, which from the Capitalist’s viewpoint seems independent. That a variable amount can be constant seems a central contradiction intrinsic to the system needing completely overturning. The total amount of Capital initially thrown into production on hugely expensive machinery on ever increasing large scales, hides this all important rate of exploitation as constant capital remains the same throughout the process and is thus treated as zero, whether completely uncultivated land with no previous social labour expended on it or within the most modern robotic factory since its only living labour that can produce surplus labour/surplus-value. The huge outlay necessary to compete today seems like the exclusive unobtainable costs to participate in merchant C18 trading companies eg the East India Company – ie it excluded most. As Marx describes in the Chapter on Primitive Accumulation, this is achieved through rape, war, slavery, invasion etc ie brutal savage force, one method of becoming a Capitalist. Modern so-called scientific production eg agriculture using chemical fertilisers or that Marx describes in the then slave states of North America in which the land was worked relentlessly, hollowed out and degraded completely – its the rate of exploitation that’s key: the ratio between the costed time spent on re-producing the slaves or workers and the amount of work taken by force by the masters and bosses. The misuse of chemicals on land is just another kind of degradation. Hi tech thus hides modern slavery and maintains the propaganda delusion that such unhuman conditions only occurred in the distant past.

  2. Hans Bakker

    What are standard Marxist (and/or “Marxian”) interpretations of the relationship between the out and out Slave Mode of Production that preceded modern capitalism and “surplus value” in the abstract in the Capitalist Mode of Production (after slavery, for the most part, has been significantly reduced)? [There is still slavery in the world, e.g. Libya today.] I fully understand that the U. S. of American benefited from slave labor (as opposed to so-called “free labor), but that seems to generally be regarded as an aspect of the Capitalist Mode of Production (despite its key importance for a long time). In the Greek polis in classical times and in the Roman Empire, etc., the importance of slave labor can be considered to be part of the overall Slave Mode of Production. (It seems not all Marxists agree on the use of the term Slave Mode of Production.) I am asking out of genuine interest and not to make a specific point. I also recognize, of course, that indentured labor is much like slave labor, even though technically it should probably not be considered “slave” labor per se. (It is certainly not “free labor” — at least not for the seven or more years it last for the indentured worker.) Some Marxists hold to the idea of of Modes of Production (M of P) as a hard and fast category, but it is my impression other true Marxists are willing to see the categories of the M of P in more fuzzy terms. The problem of the transition from the Feudal M of P to the Capitalist M of P is often discussed as if two blocks (“hard and fast structure”) are what is involed. But other seem to allow for transition periods. When would most Marxist theorist date the real beginning of the Capitalist M of P in the US? and globally? I myself tend to think in ideal type terms (and what I call “Ideal Type Models” ITMs, which I think of as very fuzzy in some ways, but still quite clear and distinct in others, e.g. Patrimonial prebendalism versus Patrimonial feudalism versus Constitutional Monarchy even if still ideologically defended by some form of argument about the divine right of Monarchs).