Slavery and Slaves

Slavery is a condition of people who are subjected, or forced, to do the bidding of other people. Subjected people are slaves; those people who dominate slaves are their masters. In the early times of savagery and barbarism, the Human Race suffered shortage of the means of subsistence; this caused the various tribes to war with each other. In these wars captives were taken, killed and in some cases eaten; hence the origin of cannibalism. In the course of time, discoveries and inventions enabled mankind to produce the means of subsistence in greater abundance, and so, it was not necessary to kill the captives taken in war.

The captured ones were kept alive and made to work for their captors; the captives became chattel slaves and were the property of their masters, known as slave holders. The masters provided their slaves with food, clothing and shelter, and so, work or no work, chattel slaves were always sure of their means of subsistence; this is an important point.

In the period of feudalism, also called the Middle Ages, chattel slavery had developed into feudal slavery, and a change in the conditions of the slaves is seen.

The feudal slaves are called serfs, or vassals; their masters, were the nobles, or Barons. The serfs, or vassals, were not fed, clothed and housed by their masters, but certain land was reserved for the use of the serf and he owned his own tools; therefore, they, the serfs, were able to produce their necessaries of life. An important feature of this period is that the slaves, having access to the land and owning instruments of production, were always sure of their means of subsistence, except, of course, when they suffered famine or pestilence. Also the masters protected their bond slaves against intruders. In return for these “privileges” the vassals had to give part of their time to producing the needs of their masters.

In the later stages of feudalism the system of capitalism began to rise, and in order that capitalism could exist and develop it was essential that the serfs be deprived of their means of living. Gradually, and in a brutal and forcible manner, the serfs were robbed of their means of living; and we see the feudal slaves transformed into wage slaves, their masters transformed into capitalists. Karl Marx, on page 761 in “Capital,” says :—

  Thus the agricultural people, first forcibly expropriated from the soil, driven from their homes, turned into vagabonds, and then whipped, branded, tortured by laws grotesquely terrible, into the discipline necessary for the wage system.

On page 738 Marx deals with the transformation of the feudal slaves into wage slaves; also called freedmen.

He says:

  But, on the other hand, these new freed men became the sellers of themselves only after they had been robbed of all their means of production, and all the guarantees of existence afforded by the old feudal arrangements. And the history of this, their expropriation is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire.

Wage slaves, then, are people who have been robbed of their means of living; therefore, they possess no property: neither do their masters feed, clothe nor house them.

In order to live, these slaves must sell their labour power to their masters, the capitalists, who, in return give them a wage on the average only sufficient to buy the means of subsistence whilst working. Thus it will be seen, if the wage slave cannot find work he will get no money; without money he cannot get the means of subsistence, therefore, he must slowly starve to death.

When the conditions of wage slavery are compared with the conditions of chattel and feudal. slavery, an exclamation arises What a change! Yes ! and a change to the disadvantage of the wage slaves, or the working class. There are, of course, alternatives provided by the masters, viz., the workhouse, parish relief, the dole, old age pensions, and, of course, a slave can beg. The masters cause the conditions of the workhouse, and parish relief, to be such that only in very extreme cases will workers use them. The dole and the old age pensions are insufficient to provide the means of subsistence; and begging is a precarious resource. The beggar is ever under the watchful eyes of the law and often finds himself in prison for striving to exist.

During the capitalistic period inventions and discoveries have arisen whereby the working class is able to produce a vast amount of the necessaries of life. But side by side with the increase in wealth there is an increase in the want and poverty of the working class; and this is because the means of living are owned by the capitalist class. Owning the means of living this class owns all the wealth produced.

We have seen the three forms of slavery and the difference between them. The chattel and feudal slaves had to endure their bondage because they had no power with which to free themselves. But the wage slaves, although they have lost the certainty of their means of subsistence, are able to obtain the power to free themselves from slavery.

Yes, the wage slaves can obtain the power to free themselves from slavery! This power can be obtained through the vote; chattel and feudal slaves were not allowed to vote, but the wage slaves are. The power to be obtained through the vote is made manifest in an election, when the different sections of the capitalist class beg for the votes of the workers in order to get into power. It is a strange thing, that the working class have the means at hand to gain their freedom and yet they use those means to put their masters into Parliament. Remarkable! By such action the wage slaves of to-day tighten the bonds of their slavery. Of course, it is obvious, the working class would not return their masters to power if they understood their slave position. How then can the workers overcome their political ignorance? By studying Socialism.

This article is a short survey of the development of slavery and slaves, and is a part of the knowledge of a Socialist. It is through studying the history of the Human Race that Socialists understand the cause of the unhappy lot of their class— the working class—and know, that the only remedy for the ills of their class is— Socialism.