Skip to Content

Editorial: Slavery and slavery

This month low-key ceremonies are taking place to mark the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire. Slavery continued, with imported slaves replaced by plantation-bred ones, and was not abolished till 1833. It continued for a further 30 or so years in the Southern States of the USA.

By slavery in this context is meant “chattel slavery”, where humans were owned as the legal property of other humans just like any other movable property. It had been widespread in Ancient Greece and Rome where some slaves were used as domestics but the great bulk were put to work in agriculture and mining. As they were themselves the property of their masters so was the product of their labour. In other words, they were exploited by having what they produced taken from them. This was again the situation on the sugar, tobacco and cotton plantations of North and South America and the West Indies from the 16th to the 19th century.

Early capitalism benefited from the slave trade not only because it stimulated world trade generally but also because it contributed to the primitive accumulation of capital that was later invested in industrial production. But chattel slavery was not a suitable form of labour exploitation for capitalism. Which was why, in the end, it was abolished.

Capitalist factory-owners needed a flexible labour force and a reserve of workers they could draw on in times of expansion and who could be discarded in times of slump. They did not want to own their workers, precisely because they wanted, when business took a downturn, to be free of any obligation to maintain them as they would have had to with chattel slaves. They favoured “free” labour. They were only interested in buying their workers’ ability to work for a limited period.

“Free” labour meant more than that the worker was just not a chattel slave. It meant that he or she was also not tied to the land either as a peasant or a serf. It means that the only productive resource they own is their ability to work, their labour-power, which they are “free” to sell to some capitalist employer or other.

But capitalists are not philanthropists. They only buy labour-power if they think they can make a profit from using it. Karl Marx was the first to point out that while the capitalist paid the worker the full value of what the worker sold – that the wage  bargain was a commercial contract in which like any other equal value was exchanged for equal value – the wage worker was nevertheless exploited just as much as the chattel slave was.

The explanation lay in the fact that there is a difference between the value of what the workers sold – their labour-power – and the higher value of what they produced. Having purchased the worker’s labour-power the capitalist employer was just as legally entitled to the product of the exercise of that labour power as the slave-owner had been to the product of his chattel slaves.

The early working class in the first decades of the 19th century didn’t need Marx to tell them what this meant. They realised that they too were slaves robbed of the product of their labour. It it was they who coined the term “wage-slavery”, not to describe the fact that they were paid low wages but that they had to work for wages at all. It was they, too, who raised the slogan “Abolition of the Wages System”.

Chattel slavery was abolished in the British Empire over 170 years ago, but slavery still continued – and continues – in the form of wage slavery. Socialists are modern-day Abolitionists. We want the wage-workers of the world to act to abolish their slavery. To organise to make the means of wealth production – the land, farms, farms, warehouses, means of transport and communication, etc – the common property of the whole of society, so that one group of humans will no longer be dependent on another to live and no group will be able to appropriate the labour of another. A world without slavery in any form.