Socialist Alternative

“Dripping with Blood and Dirt”: How British Capitalism Relied on Slavery

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Tom Costello, Socialist Alternative (ISA in England, Wales, and Scotland)

“Somebody sent me a leading article from The Economist the other day about the slave trade. It said ‘you can’t abolish the slave trade because there are all these ignorant blacks in Africa with nothing whatever to do, and they’re needed on the plantations of America’. So, The Economist said, you should regulate the slave trade.”

– Tony Benn

In response to the global explosion of the new Black Lives Matter wave, young people  in Britain have taken unprecedented steps to reappraise our legacy of imperialism and colonialism. From Edward Colston to Cecil Rhodes, a multiracial movement with BAME leadership has been drawing attention to the need to tear down the commemorative statues of racist, white supremacist figures that litter British history. 

This is a fundamentally positive change. By analyzing our past, we can develop an understanding of racism as it exists today – not purely in terms of the attitudes of individual racists, but to look at the systemic roots of it. Indeed, the system of colonial exploitation and slavery by European powers was firmly rooted in the growing system of capitalism. Rather than slavery emerging because of a pre-existing anti-black racism, the reality was the opposite way around. Racist attitudes were, for centuries, deliberately fostered and whipped up by the British ruling class to justify its own practices.

The birth of capital 

British capitalism’s role in the slave trade was preceded by drastic changes in 17th century England. The growth of capitalist agriculture had laid the basis for the displacement of the rural, who had, up to this point, worked their land themselves. By passing Enclosure Acts through parliament (essentially land privatizations), the rural population was driven away from its means of life

At the same time, major changes were taking place in how the economy was structured. Governments were deliberately accompanying the Enclosures with the growing marketization of the economy. All the while, the power of laborers to organize for decent living conditions were viciously repressed.

The landless peasants were overwhelmingly left without a choice but to make their way into the growing network of English towns and new factories. These settlements quickly came to act as centers for a developing capitalist class, which was to derive its wealth and power from the exploitation of the labor power of the urban proletariat.

This transformation in the English economy laid the basis for global trade – albeit on a highly unequal, profit-seeking basis. The capitalists quickly saw to it that English capitalism in its nascent form would seize control of colonies throughout the Caribbean. 

From these bases, raw materials (particularly sugar cane and tobacco) would be harvested, to be sold across Europe. But who was to work the land? The colonists back home recognized that capitalism could only be developed if there was an arrangement that would allow for a rapid and unprecedented accumulation of wealth. To take on this task, the bourgeoisie began to rely on the use of  “indentured servitude” – a system whereby poor English and Irish laborers would be hired to work in the colonies for periods of three to seven years at a time. 

Although the white forced laborers would usually be freed  to seek other employment after their time was up, the conditions they faced were brutal and degrading. They, just like slaves, were considered the property of the plantation owners, purely valued in terms of the material that they could harvest through backbreaking work before they had to be let free. In many cases, their contracts mutated into a form of slavery. Those servants who attempted to escape, upon being caught, were branded and had their times in captivity doubled, during which they would often die early in the harsh conditions of the Caribbean. 

Working alongside the servants was a smaller population of slaves captured from the West coast of Africa. From the point of view of the masters, there was great worry to be had in the prospect of white servants and black slaves finding common cause and uniting in struggle against their captors. These fears came to light in 1676, when, during the “Bacon’s Rebellion” in Virginia, both servants and slaves united with “free” laborers to challenge the rule of the slaveholding landlords. 

Terrified that this unity may be achieved again, the slaveholders enacted laws to strictly enforce racial segregation. If whites and blacks were kept apart, and the conditions for blacks dramatically worsened while conditions for whites fractionally improved, the white poor could be begin to feel as if they had a stake in the system, feeling a false sense of solidarity with their white owners, undercutting potential for struggles of the exploited to emerge. 

At the same time, under the conditions of the seismic English Revolution of the 1640s, news began to return home to England of the real conditions facing the servants. As the rumors spread, fewer and fewer agreed to sign up. To many, poverty at home was preferable to a life of humiliating torture abroad. Thus the wholesale importation of African slaves began. In Barbados in 1638, there were only 200 African slaves, while in 1653 the figure had jumped to 20,000.

Back home, the system had to devise a vast legal, political and religious outlook that would be able to justify Britain’s growing reliance on slavery. The courts quickly drafted up laws that decreed the “legality” of the holding and sale of slaves. The church quickly “discovered” a theological basis for slave holding, for instance in the Catholic doctrine that slaves in captivity would be “purified” of their “original sin”. But nowhere did the intellectual justifications for slavery come from more than pseudo-scientific “race theories”. Reflecting the needs of the capitalists, the idea emerged  that those of African heritage made up an “inferior” race, destined to live a social position below that of whites. 

The motive force for the development of these theories did not come from human nature. They existed to provide a pretext for capitalism’s growing reliance on the trading of human beings. It was out of this period that many of the racial categories we claim today – “black” and “white” – came to be.

The use of slavery quickly became a full-scale industrial operation. Whole cities were burned down on the West coast of Africa. Infrastructure and libraries were flattened. Any trace of advanced African civilization had to be eradicated to construct the idea of a continent of “savages” in need of white control. From the point of view of the British ruling class, this made absolute sense. Only by doing this, could they provide an excuse for the unprecedented brutality that was taking shape. Slaves were to be forced onto boats at gunpoint, and shipped across the Atlantic in order to work 18 hour days in the boiling hot plantation fields. 12 million people were ultimately trafficked. Those slaves who either fell ill or disobeyed during the journey would be thrown overboard, and roughly 1.5 of those 12 million lost their lives while crossing the Atlantic. 

Of course, the practice of keeping slaves was not new. Slavery had long been practiced by various class societies in history – particularly in Ancient Greece and Rome. But this form was different in two ways. For one, in the ancient slave states, people were not enslaved according to their race. It was possible for people of all races to end up in shackles. Secondly, while these societies relied heavily on slavery, it was capitalism (particularly British capitalism) that relied on it for its economic development. It was none other than Karl Marx who carefully highlighted this at various points in his life, saying:

“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.” – From The Poverty of Philosophy (1847) 

“The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of that continent, the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of blackskins, are all things which characterize the dawn of the era of capitalist production.” – From Capital, Vol. 1 (1867)


Capitalist historians today like to make out that slavery was abolished simply because of the moral goodness of the English bourgeoisie. This was far from the truth.

One of the major factors behind the end of Britain’s part in the slave trade was in the simple reality that the bourgeoisie had less and less use for it. British capitalism and the profits generated from slavery had given birth to a growing industrial working class, centered in cities, working the factories. Often employing children, on similar hours to those of slaves, the capitalists started to see this as a useful substitute for money spent on shipping human bodies from Western Africa to the Americas, when laborers could be exploited at home on new state-of-the-art industrial technology, while the British ruling class kept hold of its slaves regardless, abolishing their trade but not the use of them. 

Some began developing economic arguments against slavery. Adam Smith – now recognized as one of the great economic thinkers of capitalism – advocated abolition in his classic work The Wealth of Nations, on the grounds that it hindered economic development. The slaves would have no incentive to work creatively, and slaveholders would have no incentive to improve the productivity of their land. 

But, most crucially, the abolition of slavery was a product of struggle from below. Through the 18th and 19th century, slave revolts grew in frequency and determination, as did the working-class struggle in Britain. Just three years before the passing of the 1807 Slave Trade Act, black slaves on the island of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), inspired by the Great French Revolution, overthrew their masters and established the first free black republic in modern history, as best outlined in C.L.R. James’ classic work, The Black Jacobins.  

British capitalism after slavery 

In the period running up to 2015, British taxpayers were still facing the cost of abolition, derived from a £300bn loan carried by the British government in 1835. But this was not funding in order to compensate the slaves: it was for the slave owners! This was the noble “abolition” advocated by the politicians of the ruling class. 

And while we are fed the lie that the 1807 Act “abolished slavery”, the truth is more complicated. Although it did end British participation in the slave trade, slaves were still kept under the control of their owners for more than 30 years, under a rebranded system of “apprenticeship”. The continued profiting off mass enslavement was thus kept in place. 

Many socialists will quote Marx when he said that capitalism “comes dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt.” This was no exaggeration. Even after the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, colonial subjugation continued to be the lifeblood of British (and European) capitalism. The racist myths that poison many corners of the world today owe their existence to this – from Southern Africa, to India and beyond, this legacy maintains its existence to the present day. 

Many might ask themselves today: “How is it that people kept silent while the slave trade was in full swing? Why did people not speak out?”. One obvious answer is that they did, in the form of a powerful abolitionist movement, with a conscious working class element. But also, while the ruling class no longer invests directly in chattel slavery, it still presides over a world system of ruthless exploitation, poverty and racial oppression. Racism is now, as it was then, part and parcel of the system of capitalism in the US, Britain and worldwide. 

The connections between systemic racism today and then can be seen everywhere. Indeed, the party of slavery were the Tories. From Enoch Powell’s infamous racist “Rivers of Blood” speech, to Windrush and Grenfell, the Tories’ anti-migrant racism ultimately has its roots in the social system of black slavery. This is not to say that all Tories are akin to slave owners. But the division fostered by capitalism has, through history, acted to reward the ideas that underpin backward attitudes, whether they be racist, misogynistic or LGBTQ+phobic. 

Marxism understands that the most fundamental way to challenge oppression is through a united movement of the working class to uproot their system and the rotten ideas that underpin it. The role of racism from day one has been to divide working class people into hostile camps, to prevent workers of all races from understanding their common interests. Understanding this means tearing down the racist statues, but also this racist system. As Marx once said: “Labor in white skin cannot emancipate itself where in the black it is branded”. Today, the call coming from BLM activists is “All lives won’t matter until black lives matter”. We need to honor this by stepping up the revolutionary fight for a socialist future.


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