Slavery and History. The Evolution of Subjugated Labour

The essential characteristics of slavery are, we find, human subjection to and labour for the profit of masters. When man’s labour produces more than is indispensable for his maintenance, slavery is born. Prisoners of war, instead of being killed and eaten, or simply killed, are kept alive in order that they may work for their captors. Thus slavery is unknown to the more primitive folk of the savage, hunting stage. As defined, however, it is found wide-spread among peoples of a higher development, and passes historically through innumerable modifications. Nevertheless, three leading forms successively mark the course of later social evolution, namely, chattel-slavery, serfdom, and wage-labour; for the latter comes well within the definition.

We are well aware that the popular notions on slavery, and, indeed, those fostered by capitalist journalism, are mostly confined to an acquaintance with “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Herbert Spencer’s view of the matter may, therefore, well be quoted as showing the far wider scope of the institutions. He says, (Vol. 3, p. 456, Prim. Soc.),

“The current assumption is that of necessity a slave is a down-trodden being, subject to unlimited labour and great hardship ; whereas in many cases he is well cared for, not overworked, and leniently treated. Assuming slaves everywhere to have ideas of liberty like our own, we suppose them to be intolerant of despotic control: whereas their subjection is sometimes so little onerous that they jeer at those of their race who have no masters. Assuming that their feelings are such as we should have under the same circumstances, we regard them as unhappy ; whereas they are often more light-hearted than their superiors. Again, when we contrast the slave with the free man, we think of the last as his own master ; whereas very generally, surrounding conditions exercise over him a mastery more severe and unpitying than that exercised over the slave by his owner : nature’s coercion is often worse than man’s coercion.”

Spencer had to make out that the subjection of the wage-workers to the capitalist class is simply “nature’s coercion,” but otherwise his view is quite acceptable.

In offering our fellow workers some information on the condition of their historical forebears, we shall, true to the materialist conception of scientific Socialism, see in the evolution of slavery, not the idealist’s progress of ideas out of ideas, independently of material conditions, from earlier cruelty to later gentleness, but simply a reflex of the movement and progress of productive methods. A remodelling of institutions not according to heaven-sent aspirations, high ideals and “moral” religions of Greek, Mahometan and Christian, but as the further expansion of economic forces required.

The earlier written histories describe the Mediterranean and North European peoples as being, many of them, advanced to the threshold of civilisation, and still organised by kinship in contradistinction to organisation according to the territory inhabited; some living largely by agriculture, and others, like the Semitic tribes of Western Asia and Northern Africa, a pastoral, nomadic life. Private property was accumulating amongst them, even to the land itself in some cases, while domestic animals, cattle, goats, and so forth, were such everywhere. It is above all upon this new factor that depends the subsequent history of civilised peoples, including the evolution of slavery. Military raids were frequent, and provided conquerors with plunder, more fertile lands, and, above all, with prisoners, who were made to tend the cattle, or to do the more laborious work of the fields. At a later stage the ranks of slavery were swelled by poor citizens or tribesmen selling their children, and even themselves, into bondage in payment of debt. The book of Leviticus hands down to us the rules for the treatment of both the “stranger” and Hebrew bondsmen.


Some of the Grecian tribes when they conquered a neighbouring people simply bound these to the soil and compelled them to bring to their conquerors a certain fixed part of their produce, leaving their family institutions untouched, and even allowing them to accumulate property. Thus, amongst others, the Spartans held their helots ; and indeed, much of the military organisation of the former was required to keep the helots in subjection, for they long retained the memory of their free condition.

In Attica and Corinth, the distinctly commercial states, however, great numbers of chattel-slaves, largely barbarians, were held and exchanged. “At the time of the greatest prosperity the whole number of free Athenian citizens, women and children included, amounted to about 90,000 ; the slaves of both sexes numbered 305,000 and the aliens foreigners and freed slaves—45,000.” (“Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State,” by F. Engels.) Slaves furnished all kinds of useful labour. Many were in domestic service, others were cooks, bakers, tailors, miners, labourers on agricultural estates, seamen, oarsmen, etc., while the State had slaves for soldiers, and even policemen. “The free Athenian regarded this police duty as so degrading that he preferred being arrested by an armed slave rather than lending himself to such an ignominous service.” (Engels.) In Greece, although their condition underwent important changes, the slaves were mildly treated, and enjoyed considerable legal protection. Slaves came increasingly to acquire property rights and then, as Spencer has it, “the slave’s condition was much that of a freeman paying heavy taxes.” As to the outcome, Engels says that

“The great number of slaves is explained by the fact that many of them worked together in large factories under supervision. The development of commerce and industry brought about an accumulation and concentration of wealth in a few hands. The mass of the free citizens were impoverished and had to face the choice of either competing with their own labour against slave labour, which was considered ignoble and vile, besides promising little success, or to be ruined. Under the prevailing circumstances they necessarily chose the latter course, and being in the majority, they ruined the whole Attic State. Not democracy caused the downfall of Athens, as the European glorifiers of princes and lickspittle schoolmasters would have us believe, but slavery ostracizing the labour of the free citizen.”


In the earlier period of Roman history the head of the family (paterfamilias) had full power of life and death over all the members of his household—wife, child, and chattel-slave—and all were treated in general with great rigour. Slaves when old or otherwise useless were often “exposed” to starve upon an island in the Tiber. Many servile revolts are recorded—some of them of formidable proportions. That under the gladiator Sparticus in 73 B.C. lasted over the course of three years, and was only suppressed by a mighty effort by the Roman State—and this in spite of the fatal lack of cohesion and discipline among the men, who in seeking their freedom could not escape the temptation to linger in Italy for the plunder of the cities.

Later, under the Emperors, multitudes of slaves were employed in the various mechanical arts, while the cruelty of the masters was restrained by law, and property might be acquired. Further, the continual warfare with its consequent strain of military service upon the citizens resulted in the impoverishment of the poorer of these, and their lands passing into the hands of a few great landholders. Agriculture became entirely a slave occupation, carried on upon great estates called latifundae ; a system that led to the depopulation of Italy and the extinction of any class capable of resisting the Imperial tyrants or the barbarian invaders who followed.

The attitude of Christianity towards slavery was, and is, well exhibited in the notion of St. John Chryostom, that the apostle did not insist on the suppression of slavery because it was desirable that men should see how truly the slave could enjoy liberty of soul—the slavery of sin being the only real slavery. Indeed, Christianity is quite innocent of the milder treatment of slaves during the later Roman period, or of the decline of chattel-slavery, for, as Spencer puts it, by the partial failure of the supply of slaves through conquest, “the Romans were obliged to have recourse to the milder but more tedious method of propagation ; and this improved the condition of the slave by rendering his existence and physical health an object of greater value to his master.” Negro slavery in America is fairly well known, and considerations of space prevent us from giving it special treatment here. However, it is well to mention that it arose in consequence of the great demand for agricultural labour there, of a kind suited to hot and damp climates. It received its great impetus from the invention of the cotton gin at the end of the eighteenth century, when cotton became definitely available for clothing in competition with wool and flax. The “peculiar” Southern institution was abolished only when it threatened to prevent the full expansion of normal capitalism based upon wage-labour ; and the clash of material interests there involved an expenditure of blood and treasure rarely matched in history.


Now while the Teutonic eruption all over the European portions of the Roman Empire brought with it its own, as yet but little developed, servile institutions, yet it is true that this famous period roughly marks the transition (amongst Western peoples) from personal to territorial slavery—from chattel-slavery to serfdom. The steady degradation of the free population and consequent contraction of markets, resulted in the decay of the large-scale slave-worked agricultural estates ; and since the great numbers of slaves now became a burden upon their owners, these were now largely freed, and small-scale agriculture by “colonists” replaced the older system. These small cultivators paid a fixed sum, or a proportion of the product to landowners, and in other respects were indeed the prototypes of the mediaeval serfs. With regard to the Germanic overrunning of Gaul, Seebohm is quoted by Spencer as inferring that the mediaeval serf was the “compound product of survivals from three separate ancient conditions, gradually, during Roman provincial rule, and under the influence of barbarian conquest, confused and blended into one, viz., those of the slave on the Roman Villa, of the colonus or other semi-servile and mostly barbarian tenants on the Roman Villa or public lands, and of the slave of the German tribesman, who to the eyes of Taticus was so very much like a Roman colonus”


The wide-spread prevalence of the type of subject labour known as serfdom characterises above all the Middle Ages with its baronial sway and feudal organisation of society. The barbarian conquest of the ancient world, in spite of an intellectual setback, did, after all, but continue social evolution—reinvigorated, however, by the new blood from the northern forests. During and after the migrations the conquerors settled amongst the older cultivators, taking the major portion of the land and working this themselves, aided by the bondsmen they held. The long period of war and conquest had, however, left its mark upon their social organisation. The chieftains’ families had acquired the privileges of hereditary and military aristocracy and remained at the head of a new social class (itself a result of the new division of labour : cultivators—warriors), the professional soldiers. Continual warfare between the various military chieftains (e.g., the Heptarchy in England) induced most of the agriculturists, organised as these were in village communities, to place themselves under the care of a lordly “protector,” in return for which protection they surrendered the titles to their lands. Monasteries and churches in this way became, during the ninth and tenth centuries, amongst the largest landowners, and their bishops and abbeys powerful nobles. The protecting lord, baron, seigneur and his retainers had to be fed, clothed and sheltered in their massive castles and were able to exact this by commanding the services of the protected vassals for definite periods— corvée. This servile condition existed, however, in different forms : the services to be rendered and the civil rights vary with time and place. The monarch sometimes, especially in later times, sustained by the burgher class seeking its particular interests, ruled in favour of the lighter forms of serfdom.


In England typical serfdom gradually disappeared toward the close of the Middle Ages, and in most other European countries considerably later. It was abolished in Russia by Imperial edict as late as 1861. Serfdom had its frictions, as witness some robust rebellions- e.g., the villeins’ revolt under Jack Cade and Wat Tyler, likewise the Jacquerie in France and the Peasants’ War in Germany.

But the determining influence in its decline, in the last analysis (as in the case of all other social phenomena with the exception of the earliest experiences of the race, when society was more under the influence of sexual relations) was essentially economic, although a superficial reading of history may provide an idealist and purely political explanation. The progressive division of labour and its application in newer and more efficient methods, together with the resulting growth of cities, has everything to do with the rendering of serfdom obsolete and incompatible with progress. In England the change from the old, large, open field, yet scattered, small-plot system of agriculture, to the enclosed field system, together with the displacing of husbandry in favour of pastures, for sheep raising, in response to the demand for wool, had much to do with decreasing the need for numerous workers fixed to the land. “Owing to the spread of new agricultural methods, their services ceased to be valuable,” says Spencer, quoting Cunningham.

The development of the bourgeoisie in the cities and their need of defenders resulted in many serfs finding refuge and livelihood with them. In Italy the serfs were largely foeed in this way, while the wide-spread demand for money on the part of the nobles during the Crusades, and in emulation of the now prosperous city merchants, led the manorial lords to look rather to rent payments than to services ; and finally it was being discovered that “free-labour” was more efficient and profitable than “servile-labour.” Spencer has it that “German obververs in Russia, as quoted by Prof. Jones, say that a Middlesex mower will mow as much in a day as three Russian serfs. The Prussian Councillor of State, Jacobi, is considered to have proved that in Russia where everything is cheap, the labour of a serf was double as expensive as that of a labourer in England. In Austria the work of a serf is stated to have been equal to one-third that of a hired man.”

It is of some interest to note that vestiges of serfdom survived in England until quite recent times. Thus colliers and salters were bound for life to the mines in which they worked, and their sons with them, until the end of the eighteenth century, while well into tho nineteenth century a “free” labourer could not choose, so were conditions arranged, to leave his employer without incurring risk of punishment. Finally, as regards the real relations of servile and free labour, and the determining causes thereof, the views of these two, certainly not Socialist, and eminently respectable, thinkers, may not be out of place. Thus, John Adams in the American Congress of 1776, “That as to this matter, it was of no consequence by what name you called your people, whether by that of freemen or slaves. That in some countries the labouring poor men are called freemen ; in others they were called slaves ; but the difference was imaginary only. What matters it whether a landlord employing ten labourers on his farm gives them annually as much as will buy the necessaries of life, or gives them those necessaries at short hand ?” (From “Lost Principles of Sectional Equilibrium,” by “Bararossa,” 1860.) Herbert Spencer concludes in this way. “When slave labour and free labour come into competition, slave labour, other things equal, decreases as being less economical. The relative lack of energy, the entire lack of interest, the unintelligent performance of work, and the greater cost of supervision, make the slave an unprofitable productive agent. Hence with an adequate multiplication of labourers it tends gradually to disappear.”

Reviewing, then, slavery in the only fruitful manner, that is, historically ; considering its origin, manifestations and developments, we find that so-called free-labour—wage-labour—falls into its proper place as a later development, of servile production. Free-labour is seen then, to have its roots in chattel-slavery and serfdom, and its future—but to that, shortly. For while labour has been gradually freed from the shackles of chattel and villein conditions, it yet undeniably partakes of the essential characteristics of slavery, viz., human subjection to and labour for the profit of masters. Its distinction from the older forms is sufficiently indicated in the well established Socialist term—


However, the existing order, capitalism, based upon wage-labour, contains and develops within itself its own negation, as did the earlier social systems. The ancient order, based upon chattel-slavery, could not survive the degradation consequent upon the fullest development of that basis, and gave way to the agricultural and military barbarism, which soon developed the feudal system, leaning mainly upon serf-labour. This in turn prepared within itself its own destroyers,—the merchant and artizan class of the towns, the bourgeoisie, who, overthrowing the nobles, and also the King where he could not be made to serve their turn, have become the dominant class, and have moulded society much in their own sanctimonious image. The hislorically indicated negation of capitalism is Socialism: and the revolutionary instrument of its achievement is the modern class of wage-workers who, stripped of property, are compelled to seek a livelihood by selling to the bourgeoisie their labour-power, but who, in so doing, at the same time acquire an understanding of the conditions of their own development, become class-conscious, and organise for their emancipation. Thereby “emancipating society at large from all its exploitation, oppression, class distinctions and class struggles.”

History dictates the final overthrow of slave-founded society, and the establishment of fraternal society—SOCIALISM.

J. H. H.

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