Why was slavery abolished?

Dear Friends

Comments on ‘No slaves! No gods! No masters!’ (Rear View, May 2020)

The organisation now called Anti-Slavery International (ASI) was not, as you state, founded by William Wilberforce in 1839; he had died in 1833; the founder was Thomas Clarkson. The role played by William Wilberforce had been to lead the parliamentary campaign of the ending of the trans-Atlantic slave-trade and the freeing of slaves in the ‘British Empire’, which was achieved by legislation in the year he died. You don’t give evidence for your assertion that the reason for the owning class agreeing to the abolition of slavery was that ‘it was considered an outmoded and inefficient method of labour exploitation’; well – it persisted in capitalist America for several more decades! Surely the long campaigning by Wilberforce, Clarkson and others in stirring public opinion against the treatment of slaves had some impact on the eventual result in Parliament?

Yes, it was and is incredible and appalling that Wilberforce, while campaigning to free slaves in America, could also at home employ child labour and preach to the working class to ‘know their place’. Nevertheless, there must have been many thousands of freed slaves whose lives were, to some extent at least, improved by their no longer being, literally, the property of their owners, to be bought and sold and ill-treated, without impunity, at a whim. This is surely not the case with those of you now call ‘wage slaves’. Anti-Slavery International works still to campaign on behalf of people, here and internationally, who remain, literally, the property of owners. (Would it not be better for you to use some word other than ‘slaves’ to describe those of us who are employed – not owned?)

So, ASI campaigners are your despised ‘reformists’ – but, may they not also be socialists? Why do you insist that it is and either/or situation? Why not both/and? Do you suppose that reformists are in every case going to rest content at the achievement of their particular reform? Or may it not be that such an achievement, if it gives some improvement in the lives of some human beings, is a step – even if only a small one – towards socialism? ‘From each according to their abilities’, we say, – and if Tory William Wilberforce’s persistent and persuasive oratory (as appallingly blinkered as he was in other respects) led to better lives for wretched slaves, then so be it!

Must socialists be ‘absolutists’, refusing involvement in well-meaning reform campaigns, in order to maintain clean-handed ideological purity? Or, even worse, are we allowed to enjoy the relative material comforts brought to many of us by capitalism in our part of the globe, while engaging in merely cerebral ‘holier-than-thou’ argument, as we await a ‘big-bang’ revolution? Ought we not to be living now as if we really believed in socialism as a way of life, contributing willingly, as we can, to our fellow human beings, and taking in return just what we actually need? Would not our actions, however compromised and seemingly pathetic, speak louder than words alone?

Andrew Durrant, Norwich

Reply: You rightly takes us to task for stating that Anti-Slavery International was founded in 1839 by William Wilberforce, who died in 1833 (see May’s Rear View). To be sure, the group has undergone several name changes since its origin as the Anti-Slavery Society in 1823. Campaiging by Thomas Clarkson, Wilberforce and other abolitionists likely did lead to the passing of the Slavery Abolition Act a decade later, but it should be remembered that William Pitt the Younger, the prime minister as far back as 1783, was not alone in thinking that the trade should be abolished as it was more expensive than using workers. However, you are on shakier ground when you write ‘there must have been many thousands of freed slaves whose lives were, to some extent at least, improved by their no longer being, literally, the property of their owners, to be bought and sold and ill-treated, without [sic] impunity, at a whim.’ In his autobiography Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1892), the former slave writes: ‘The old master class was not deprived of the power of life and death, which was the soul of the relation of master and slave. They could not, of course, sell their former slaves, but they retained the power to starve them to death, and wherever this power is held there is the power of slavery. He who can say to his fellow- man, You shall serve me or starve, is a master and his subject is a slave….Though no longer a slave, he is in a thralldom grievous and intolerable, compelled to work for whatever his employer is pleased to pay him..’ .

You go on to ask if socialists must ‘be absolutists, refusing involvement in well-meaning reform campaigns, in order to maintain clean-handed ideological purity?’ To be clear, socialists oppose reformism, not necessarily individual reforms. Indeed, it would be incorrect to deny that certain reforms won by modern wage slaves have helped to improve general living and working conditions. There are examples of this in such fields as education, housing, child employment, work conditions and social security. Yet as Willian Morris remarked in a lecture: ‘the palliatives over which many worthy people are busying themselves now are useless because they are but unorganized partial revolts against a vast, wide-spreading, grasping organization which will, with the unconscious instinct of a plant, meet every attempt at bettering the conditions of the people with an attack on a fresh side’ (Art & Socialism,1884). Reforms, if passed, have in reality done little more than to keep workers and their families functioning and while providing some temorary relief only rarely managed to remove the problem completely — as the 170,000 UK registered charities , of which Anti-Slavery International is one, attest. — Editors.

Marx or Proudhon?

Dear Editor,

Thank you for your very generous and thoughtful review of my book, Sitopia, How Food Can Save the World. I am delighted that your reviewer liked the book so much and feel that there is much in it with which socialists could agree. I do consider myself a socialist at heart and clearly the metaphor of society being a place in which everyone eats well – and by implication has the means of leading a good and meaningful life – is, I believe, at the heart of socialism. We are clearly agreed that capitalism has proved itself unable to deliver such an outcome – and I accept your point that one cannot lay the blame for totalitarian regimes such as those of modern China and Russia at the feet of Marx – although I found myself very taken with Proudhon’s argument that his optimism in vesting all power in the state had its own inbuilt pitfalls! In any case, I welcome your comments.

With all best wishes,

Carolyn Steel

Reply: Thanks, but we have to point out that neither Marx nor us want to vest “all power in the state”. Marx envisaged, as we do, socialism/communism as a classless, stateless, moneyless community based on the common ownership of productive resources. Proudhon did envisage the end of the state as a centralised coercive power centre, but wanted to retain production for sale even if by co-operatives, which we don’t agree with – Editors.

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