Slavery Was Crucial for the Development of Capitalism
Portside Date:
Author: Robin Blackburn, Owen Dowling
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Interview by Owen Dowling.

Robin Blackburn, longtime editor of the New Left Review, is probably the foremost Marxist historian of New World slavery working today. In The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery: 1776–1848 (1988) and The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492–1800 (1997), Blackburn charts the construction and revolutionary downfall of the slave systems of the colonial Atlantic.

These two volumes — complemented more recently by An Unfinished Revolution: Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln (2011), and The American Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights (2013) — together comprise a comprehensive transnational account of what Blackburn’s newest book designates “the First Slavery.”

With The Reckoning: From the Second Slavery to Abolition, 1776–1888 (2024), the historian provides the long-awaited concluding volume to his chronological trilogy on racial slavery in the New World. Owen Dowling sat down with Robin Blackburn to discuss the book, his now-completed trilogy as a coherent whole, and what a Marxist perspective brings to the study of slavery, racism, and capitalism in global history.

What Made the Second Slavery Distinct


Can you give an introductory explanation of what is meant by the “Second Slavery”?


The Second Slavery is a concept that has been developed over the last ten years or so by historians of the Americas, especially of slavery in the nineteenth-century United States, Brazil, and Cuba. Slavery not only survived the Age of Revolution — 1776 to 1848 — but flourished, with slave-grown cotton, coffee, and sugar dominating the world market.

The European slave colonies in the Caribbean proved vulnerable to the slave revolts and upheavals of the revolutionary epoch. The leading colonial powers — Spain, Britain, and France — each tried to suppress the great slave uprising in Saint-Domingue between 1791 and 1804, but without success. The French colony was eventually replaced by the independent black state of Haiti in 1804. This alarmed slaveholders throughout the Americas and persuaded Britain and the United States to end their open participation in the Atlantic slave trade in 1807.

However, Anglo-American merchants continued to supply huge quantities of “trade goods” — shackles, swords, implements, rum, tobacco, guns, ammunition — to exchange for captives on the African coast. This clandestine traffic carried off more than two million captives in the years up to 1860, as Sean Kelley has shown in his new book American Slavers (2023).

This initial species of “abolition” thus did not end the Atlantic traffic, let alone free the millions of slaves mobilized on the plantations. But it did disturb and discredit the slaveholders, obliging them to build a more fortified “Second Slavery.” Events in the Caribbean continued to have a double impact, inspiring antislavery campaigning but also stoking a proslavery backlash and encouraging an emergent doctrine of racial supremacy in the 1830s and ’40s.

These opposing ideologies pitted whites against blacks, the free against the enslaved, males against females, the African-born against the American-born. But they also informed interracial coalitions that appealed to nonslaveholding whites and free people of color.

Britain’s largest slave colony, Jamaica, was the scene of a major revolt in 1831–32 that was shortly followed by slave emancipation in 1833–38 and “immediatist” antislavery societies. Jamaica was the most valuable British colony, just as Saint-Domingue had been the most valuable French plantation regime. In both Jamaica and Saint-Domingue, slaves had accounted for something like 80 percent of the population, so they had massive numerical superiority — but it still took ten or fifteen years for the movements to achieve a qualified emancipation.

Why did Cuba, Brazil, and the United States stand apart from the debacle of the First Slavery? A key consideration was that the leading slaveholders offered the white majority a stake in the constitutional order large enough to produce and secure racial domination. Fear and privilege all helped to cement proslavery and consolidate the “Slave Power.” White privilege could include a horse, the vote, a gun, “freedom of the range,” patrols, militia, and plantation employment.

The supposedly “democratic” and republican regime of the United States managed to be even more unequal than the monarchical orders in Brazil and Cuba. The slaveholding order of the United States was also buttressed by constitutional provisions that notoriously counted the slaves as three-fifths of a free person. They also made it virtually impossible to end slavery by constitutional means. Combined with first-past-the-post electoral rules and patriarchal exclusion, this boosted the representation of slaveholders. The enslaved were not a majority and even freedmen rarely had the vote, so there was an important layer of white males to be flattered by gentlemanly demagogues like Thomas Jefferson, John C. Calhoun, and Andrew Jackson.

The characteristic feature of the slaveholders of Cuba, Brazil, and the United States was that they had successfully established a mass racial regime of white domination as a buttress to the slave plantation regime. They also were globally rich and could buy in the best military equipment, but they could mobilize the white population in patrols and militias, and that was a sufficient guarantee of their power. These became the heartlands of the Second Slavery, the survivors of the Age of Revolution among the slave regimes of the New World.

By the middle decades of the nineteenth century, the institution of slavery, where it survived, seemed stronger than ever, an example of Friedrich Nietzsche’s dictum that what doesn’t destroy you, makes you strong. The US victory over Mexico in 1848 clearly showed where power lay in the hemisphere. The South boasted more millionaires than the North, and exports of slave produce comprised 70 percent of the national total. The expansion of the American “Slave Power” was impressive but not entirely reassuring in that it was in some ways better exploited by the new capitalism of the North and West.


In what critical ways did the “Second Slavery” of the postrevolutionary nineteenth century differ from the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century “First Slavery”?


The slaveholders of the First Slavery were colonials, absentees, and émigrés; those of the Second Slavery reveled in their sovereignty and supplied leadership to an armed citizenry. They constituted the Slave Power. They supplied a more far-reaching mobilization of race and capital, a stronger — more perfected — regime of race and capital, and therefore it’s all the more curious that it risked everything by hazarding secession from the United States. The slaveholders were dealt a strong hand but played it badly.

There were also important economic innovations, which I explore in The Reckoning, including a new “Anglo-Saxon” credit regime that answered a problem that all the regimes of slavery encountered: a shortage of credit for the plantations. Any agricultural entrepreneur faces all sorts of problems to do with microbes, pests, fire, flood, and climate extremes. Under the First Slavery, there had been a recurrent credit famine.

Planters needed considerable resources in order to produce the next year’s crop; to buy provisions, equipment, seeds, and manure — also reserves to bridge adversity or to profit from a good opportunity (such as a neighbor’s bankruptcy). So slaveholders often wanted extra loans. One particularly important financial change was the lifting of the so-called Latin or Roman ban on using slaves as collateral. This prohibition had long survived because it enabled the estate owner to survive and prosper, but at the expense of a reduced rate of colonial growth.

The larger merchants, bankers, and creditors lusted over an end to the ban. Dutch entrepreneurs had tried to shake it off in early and mid-seventeenth-century Brazil, but it was not until 1732 that the British government formally ended its own ban. The Colonial Debts Act of that year set the scene for a dramatic century of growth in the British islands and enclaves. It was something that proved to really unlock the credit system under the Second Slavery. The planters of the United States inherited from their former master this key to unlocking the prodigious potential of the slave plantations.

Slavery’s Expansion and the Domination of Capital


In The Making of New World Slavery, you discuss the ways something beginning to approximate a kind of capitalist rationality was worked out through and against older, “baroque” ways of organizing the plantation. By the time of the Age of Revolution, there came almost a crisis point, where lots of those older systems fell away in the face of some kind of bourgeois-revolutionary process or other. Picking up on your point about the perfecting of the system of race and capital under the Second Slavery, does the removal of that prior fetter on using slaves as collateral then represent the culmination of a dynamic whereby these nineteenth-century plantations were now properly integrated into the “commodity circuit,” whereas they were only “half-integrated” previously?


Yes, that’s a good summary of an important part of the argument. There was something conservative about the old regime, the Latin regime (really it comes from Roman law), which prohibited planters from taking on too much debt. Very often it’s thought that widespread debt among planters was a great sign of weakness. In a way my analysis — I’m getting part of this from John Clegg — is that on the contrary, this signified the vitality of the new plantation system.

The planters had already been allowed to use their future crop as collateral, but not their slave crew. Like the planter’s home and hearth, the slaves were protected from the vagaries of the market. Debt turbocharged the system, since the planters went out and borrowed up to the hilt. But capitalism has always been dogged by a trade cycle, boom and bust, panics: there was the great panic of 1819, and then 1837, and then 1857.

There is a great range of these credit crises: they create a bubble economy, and then the plantation is so good at burying its conservative defenses that it actually exposes itself to market crisis. There were always bound to be problems — terrible weather, pests, 101 things that can go wrong — but under the older conservative regime, the “Latin” regime, at least the planter still had his crew of slaves and his equipment and so forth.


You’ve written in previous books about the capacity of slave plantations, in times of hardship, to essentially retreat into the “natural economy” as a sort of shell under which to hide until market conditions improved. I assume that under the Second Slavery this wasn’t the case — if all of a planter’s slaves were now, legally, collateral assets, he couldn’t just retreat during hard times into being a sort of serf-lord, since his slave crews would just be seized by the bank? Was there, then, an element of intra-ruling-class contestation between the slaveholders and financial capitalists? Was finance seen, as well as being a boon to plantation expansion, as a threat to the patriarchal status of a slaveowner within the community, if his plantation and his slaves could be taken off of him by moneymen?


You are right to observe a narrowing of the planter’s options; for example, whether to retrench or to gamble on expansion. There was a special layer of “factors,” who were like financial advisers to the planter. The factor would live in the big trade centers, whereas the planter was on the plantation, where he wasn’t able to follow what the market was doing day by day, so the factor would oversee the timing of sales and charge a small commission.

Standing behind the factors were the banks and the big merchant houses. So there was an element of intraclass conflict — though only intraclass insofar as they were all under the regime of capital. In one sense, the planters and the merchants were a unified class, but in another they were a divided one, especially when things started going wrong.

John Clegg has carried out a thorough investigation of tens of thousands of foreclosures in South Carolina during the 1830s and ’40s in a 2018 article in Social Science History. It shows that, once the ban on collateralizing slaves had been overcome, there was a ready market in slaves (very positive from the slaveowners’ point of view): slaves could be quite quickly “turned” into capital to get rid of debt, and to transfer slave “assets” from less efficient producers to more efficient ones.

That gets back to your point about divisions within the ruling class: some of that division was a question of less efficient producers getting squeezed out by more efficient ones. Of course, what we are really talking about here is that a purer form of capital, a more dynamic form of capital, was supplanting a more conservative one.


Talking of the capacity of new credit relations to underwrite new waves of expansion, how important was settler colonialism to the new wave of plantation production under the Second Slavery?


European migration played a significant foundational role in the First Slavery, but free migrants tended to avoid the slave plantation zone because slaveowners were uncomfortable neighbors. Some immigrants secured employment on the plantations, but they often aspired to own their own farm. Others would migrate to the West or even North.

The role of settlers was strategic; in these slave regimes, it was really important that the social relations were not just between slaveholders on one hand and slaves on the other. There was a large population in Second Slavery countries who were neither slaveowners nor slaves: including farmers either unable to afford slaves or not desirous of owning them. These layers were able to provide some solidity and some guarantees or defenses to the slave regime.

But things could go wrong. The free people of color within this nonslaveowning populace could get very restive; they were denied the civic equality they naturally would have liked, and you got the development of associations and the emergence of antislavery forces in society. These included many free people of color, but also free whites, many of whom found the prospect of life side by side with slaveowners very unattractive. The settler element could become unstable under certain conditions, which included the economic crises.

Territorial expansion, entailing settler colonization, was probably a necessity for the Second Slavery in the United States, and for Cuban and Brazilian slavery, too. They were expanding and colonizing new territory the whole time, with new crops developing in new areas. Prior to 1790, there had been very little cotton produced in the United States, and that was mainly down on the coast, which wasn’t suitable for industrial uses.

The cotton that turned out to be important for Britain’s industrial revolution was a new Mexican variety that was best grown in the upland interior. Between 1790 and 1860, planters and merchants organized the forcible migration of nearly a million slaves from Virginia and the North to the South and Southwest. This notoriously entailed the breakup of slave families.

The “Indian presence” in these new territories remained quite significant well into the nineteenth century, in spite of the atrocious treatment of the indigenous peoples. They didn’t just disappear; they receded into the forests and mountainous areas, but they were still there. Resistant Indians and slave fugitives sometimes made common cause, as did Red Sticks and Seminoles.

In a way, indigenous resistance unfortunately helped to “toughen up” and racialize the slave regime by scaring the white settler colonists, who were frightened of “the Indians” as well as of “black insurrection” — of slave insurrection. The German Coast Insurrection of 1811 showed how slave plantations could foster a new type of class struggle.

It was really important to the slaveowners that white men had some motive to make them enlist in the patrols and the militias. As you can imagine, going out on patrol two or three times a week and sometimes being the target for black animosity, they needed reasons to support the planters. Fear of “the blacks” began to create a whole political culture as a buttress for the slaveowners — what we’re really talking about now is racial capitalism, which demanded a popular mobilization among whites to maintain it.

In that context, the fact that there was Indian resistance going on also helped to mobilize whites behind the existing slave regime. It’s very important not to blame the victims here, but it was of course essential for the slave system that the white settlers were mobilized in this way to defend the racial regime.


How important were the new forces of production yielded up by the industrial revolution, like steam power and railways and canals, to the technical side of the revolution in plantation production during the Second Slavery?


I would say very important. That’s part of the argument of the Second Slavery historians — for example, The Reinvention of Atlantic Slavery (2017) by Daniel Rood supplies a vivid account of the industrialization of sugar production in Cuba and Louisiana, and for developing new markets in Rio de Janeiro. The sugar planters with their “vacuum pans” drew upon, and contributed to, the chemical revolution. By the 1840s, US planters had invested in over a thousand steamboats, Cuban sugar lords owned over 350 ultramodern sugar mills, and Brazilian railways brought coffee grown in the interior to Santos and Rio de Janeiro.


In The Making, you chart the genealogy of antiblack racialization throughout the centuries. How did the ideology of racial slavery change during the Second Slavery period? I ask partly with a mind to the abolitionist challenge during the Age of Revolution, which you explore in The Overthrow.


I think there was a strand of abolitionism going back to the American Revolution, often expressed by those with a Quaker background. Emancipation in 1780 in Pennsylvania reflected this impulse at a time when the independence war was still ongoing. Often it was those influenced by the Quakers, rather than Quakers themselves, who acted.

Those who adopted the patriot ideology with its watchwords celebrating liberty could sometimes be shamed into supporting particular abolitionist measures. In New England, Brazil, and Spain, those who called themselves liberals could support “free womb” laws that freed children born to slave mothers once they reached twenty-five years of age.

The exclusion of slaves from the US northwest by the Ordinance of 1787 was a different phenomenon, expressive of hostility to blacks whether free or enslaved. While the racial order of the First Slavery had been based on racial domination, that of the Second Slavery was based on racial exclusion.


In terms of the subjectivity of enslavement as a laborer on these plantations, was that experience one of an intensification of the work regime under the Second Slavery?


The answer is that there was an intensification, with refinements of gang labor and task labor both playing a part. There is some dispute about its characteristics, but I think the evidence shows there was a fourfold increase in the per-capita productivity of slave-grown cotton, which was fairly dramatic over a half century from 1803 to 1861. That’s now accepted by different sides of the debates.

Edward Baptist argues that widespread adoption of torture was responsible for this productivity leap. His view is not found in all historians of the Second Slavery. James Oakes, an outstanding analyst of the slave regime, has an interesting discussion of Baptist’s book in the journal International Labor and Working-Class History from 2016. He queries whether large advances in labor productivity can be explained by just one variable.

Alan Olmstead and Paul Rhode contend that this productivity increase was all down to better seeds and a new type of short-staple cotton. This was certainly what the manufacturers wanted in Manchester and the English industrializing districts — to get their hands on as much of this new type of cotton as they could, because it was adaptable to the industrial system. Cotton was also good because it was not so easily attacked by pests.

It is widely accepted that there was a fourfold increase in the productivity of slave labor between 1803 and 1861. During this time, the area dominated by slavery actually grew very considerably, and it was the new and more desirable upland cotton that was demanded by the textile manufacturers. The increase in the productivity of labor really came from their leaving the coastal district, which was not suited for the good type of cotton, to the new territories. As I have noted, nearly a million slaves were sold from the more northerly states down to the Mississippi basin and Georgia.

You could say the move was down to three considerations: firstly, the adoption of better varieties of cotton; secondly, the movement of slaves from the low to the highly fertile soil of the upland regions; and thirdly, the intensification of gang and task labor. These factors could very well have contributed. Each depended on the powers and ability of the slaveowner to control and direct his labor force. Moreover, each may have led to extreme violence when the slaveowner found himself being obstructed by an unwilling slave community.


In your conclusion to The Making, you have a long chapter where you relitigate the thesis of Eric Williams in Capitalism and Slavery (1944) and offer your own assessment of the significance of colonial slavery for the inception of primitive accumulation, capital accumulation, and ultimately industrialization in Britain — broadly coming down on the position that it did play a consequential role. With British industrialization, and specifically the mechanization of cotton spinning and then weaving in Lancashire providing a substantial fillip for the nineteenth-century expansion of plantation cotton in the Americas, was this a dynamic in which the First Slavery had a significant role in engendering the British industrial revolution, which then reciprocally played an important role in creating the conditions for the Second Slavery?


That’s very much a position I would take. There has been a shift since the publication of The Making. I’m not claiming it came about as a result of the book’s publication, but I did begin to supply new evidence for this role, along with at least a dozen other historians. I think one would say now, and others have said, that supporters of the Williams thesis have the better of the argument at the moment.

What really seems to have been decisive is that the British merchants and manufacturers had a monopoly of the new Atlantic markets. It really was the British Atlantic Empire, the informal as much as the formal one, that supplied outlets as well as inputs. The empire of free trade was highly complementary to British industrialization. The victory of the American Revolution may have been bad for the self-regard of the British, but actually it didn’t do them much economic damage. The United States remained an ideal commercial partner for industrializing Britain, because it supplied both raw cotton and the market that British industrial development required.

Of course there was no industrial revolution as such in the United States up to about 1840, and then the country did start to industrialize — belatedly compared with the British. It remained awkward that the governments of the Second Slavery were so intimately involved with a supposedly pariah institution.

Antislavery Resistance


What was the significance of the nineteenth-century US radical abolitionist tradition in bringing about the terminal crisis of the Second Slavery in that country?


The US slaveholders really seemed to be in an impregnable position in 1860. The United States was the richest state in the New World, and it was richer than many European states. Property was sacred, and the slaves were property. The so-called Free States were prepared to see the continuation of slavery — all they wanted to stop was the expansion of slavery at their expense. I think that what drove the southern slaveholders to revolt was fear of insurrection, and fear in particular of white politicians who couldn’t be trusted with the defense of slavery.

The antislavery movement created enough unrest among their slaves to prey on the lurid imagination of the slaveholders, with the Underground Railroad being a keen source of concern. The political and financial “panic” of the late 1850s brought matters to a head. The significance of John Brown’s intervention at Harpers Ferry, itself a key development, seemed all the greater coming on top of the collapse of slavery in Martinique and Guadeloupe in 1848, the whole preceding antislavery agitation, and (above all) the actions of the fugitive slaves.

British colonial slavery had been considerably weakened in the 1820s and ’30s when there seemed to be slave revolt in the Caribbean, combined with the pressure of the Reform movement and the antislavery movement outside Parliament. In The Overthrow I give an account of this process, which I think is important because even the most radical black nationalist accounts — I’m thinking of the otherwise excellent 1619 Project — really deny any significant role to the abolitionist movements. I don’t think it is at all plausible to argue that slave emancipation could have happened without those antislavery agitations, without the Antislavery Society, without the tireless lecturing of Frederick Douglass, without the Underground Railroad, without the slave narratives, without the Civil War and without Reconstruction.

Undoubtedly the antislavery campaigners were often very moderate and patronizing — they weren’t as abolitionist as they thought they were. Their opposition to slavery was stronger than their opposition to racism, and they were not uncompromising in supporting all forms of black resistance. These limits were egregious.

However, the abolitionists gave a platform to black writers and lecturers, and some of them were very radical, such as the Secret Six or those meeting and training with John Brown. Frederick Douglass was a towering figure, of course, in developing the antislavery movement. He was backed by Gerrit Smith, an immensely wealthy and quite revolutionary figure. All things considered, the slaveholders weren’t just panicking needlessly — they had some solid grounds for it.

You write in your conclusion: “The defeat of the slaveholders in the US Civil War was the decisive event in the overthrow of the Second Slavery, just as the Haitian Revolution and British slave emancipation has spelled the end of the colonial slave regimes.” Could you elaborate a little about the wider continental significance of the defeat of the Confederacy for post-1865 abolition in Cuba and Brazil?


The victory of the North and the Thirteenth Amendment (1865) led fairly quickly to free womb laws, first in Spanish Cuba (1870) and then in Brazil (1871). Slave emancipation proper was delayed by nearly two decades. Slavery only survived thanks to the greed of the planters and the feebleness of the Spanish state.

The slave regime was associated with a political order that was no longer capable of defending itself. In the case of Cuba in particular, there was a national liberation movement that was sufficiently strong to cause huge losses to the Spanish colonial power, and eventually slavery was abolished by both the rebels and the colonial power. By 1886, it was finished.

Events in Cuba between 1868 and the 1880s, the so-called Thirty Years’ War, were interwoven with antislavery themes. If you look at the soldiers in the rebel army, the mambises, about half of them were African or people of African descent. This was not just the rank and file, but also the generals. About half the generals in the Cuban liberation army, men like Antonio Maceo and his comrades, were people of mixed race or of African origin.

After an armistice that was not accepted by Maceo and his followers, the rebellion broke out again in 1895. The United States invaded Cuba during the ensuing war, worried that the island’s fate would be decided by armed blacks and men of color. Former abolitionists agitated for the withdrawal of the US occupying forces and respect for a Cuban popular assembly.

Slavery in Brazil was eventually suppressed in 1888, and it really collapsed thanks to an implosion of the monarchy itself, which had become too implicated on both sides of the question — it was too close to slavery for the radicals and the republicans, and it was too close to abolitionism for the slavocrats. The coherence of the slave regime was destroyed just as the colonial regime in Cuba had been destroyed.

My latest volume, The Reckoning, registers how slave agency emerges during the American Civil War and Reconstruction. The battle between the North and the South was sufficiently bitter that Lincoln and the Republicans feared in 1864 that the slaveholders could still win — even if there was this compromise solution, which would leave something like slavery.

Half a century ago, slave emancipation was seen to have emerged from above as a sort of national blessing. Now we are far more aware of the crucial contribution of the slaves and former slaves. But we are also more aware of the glaring limits and flaws of the postemancipation societies, and of the perpetuation of racial oppression in them.

Writing Slavery’s History


I’d like to ask now about your own scholarly background and political commitments, and how you got into the study of colonial slavery. In his conclusion to Street Fighting Years back in 1987, Tariq Ali wrote: “[Robin] Blackburn is completing his life’s work, a history of slavery in the New World and the forces that eventually swept it aside.” The following year, you published your first volume, The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery. Is your trilogy on New World Slavery — now concluded with The Reckoning — your life’s work? How did you find your way to it?


I chose New World Slavery because it struck me as something very dramatic and different from British politics, which seemed quite parochial and stale, with never any real change. We developed in the New Left Review (NLR) an analysis of the stupefying consequences of Britain’s peculiar historical development. I got interested in the Cuban Revolution, initially through a newspaper description of a general strike there in May 1958.

I joined the London New Left Club, which met in the Marquee Club in Oxford Street every Tuesday, and in which Stuart Hall, the first editor of the NLR, was involved. I can remember we had a game of cricket, with very small sides: a dozen or so people from Tribune on the one hand and from the New Left Review on the other. I got thirty-five runs, which I was very pleased with.

Somehow or other I’d got involved with the Hands Off Cuba movement, and I actually went to Cuba in December 1961. I then produced, together with Perry Anderson, a special issue of the student magazine New University that featured Jean-Paul Sartre on his visit to Cuba and his interview with Fidel Castro. I was to go to Cuba on another three or four occasions in the ’60s, and it was a sort of radicalizing experience for me.

It’s not that we didn’t see any problems in the Cuban Revolution: it was quite clear that there were serious problems, but there were also fresh perspectives. At any rate, I met Che Guevara on that occasion; I actually worked for a market research outfit, Cuban Foreign Trade Enterprises, a branch of the Cuba Foreign Ministry. This was a time of vigorous debate in Cuba. My minister, Alberto Mora, articulated a critique of Che’s industrial strategy, but cordial and comradely relations were maintained. The Winter 2024 issue of New Politics has a special feature on these debates.

I also encountered historians in Cuba, notably Manuel Moreno Fraginals, and was very struck by a national culture that had powerful African elements, notably in Cuban music and painting. I met Wifredo Lam and Fernando Ortiz — a cultural anthropologist, but someone who had also studied tobacco and sugar. That was intellectually quite exciting. I also worked with Fernando Martínez Heredia, who became editor of a magazine called Pensamiento Crítico (Critical Thought). He was head of the Department of Philosophy at Havana University, and he was in his twenties. NLR ran an interview with him after his death in 2017.

Among the people that I got involved with at this time was C. L. R. James, the brilliant Trinidadian historian and writer. James came to Cuba in 1968 for the Congress of the Intellectuals, and of course he was a hero of mine. I had first been introduced to him by Orlando Patterson, my Jamaican colleague at the London School of Economics, and I was enthralled by The Black Jacobins. So there was a sort of intellectual depth to studying Cuban history.

Obviously this was partly a question of looking at the effects of the history of slavery creating a political culture with a powerful racist component. The work of W. E. B. Du Bois was obviously of great importance, including his idea of the “general strike” during the American Civil War. The current of what you might call “fugitive slave insurrectionism” was a powerful force that emerged in country after country in the slave colonies.


Would you then say that you took a Cuban route into becoming a historian of New World Slavery?


I think that’s true, yes. And it’s a bit curious that it’s only with this last volume, The Reckoning, that the material on Cuba comes out strongly.


In your conclusion to The Overthrow, back in 1988, you wrote that you had devised plans for a sequel exploring the material that now appears in your new book, but your next volume in fact proved to be The Making, which went back in history and covered the political economy of the prior construction of New World Slavery instead of moving forward chronologically to the Second Slavery. You explain that The Making and The Overthrow in fact were initially conceived as one manuscript, and that the late Mike Davis had an important influence upon you in splitting the work into two separate volumes. What was the importance of the NLR environment for writing this collection of volumes as you did?


The NLR certainly supplied a very supportive environment, and people around it had an involvement. What Mike Davis in particular opened up for me was the radical history of the Americas, and especially of the United States. He was very generous in commenting on work that one had done and making strategic suggestions and giving advice.

You’re quite correct in saying that he suggested splitting the manuscript in two. But what was curious is that he also suggested that the first part chronologically should become the second part, while the second part should become the first. Specifically with Mike, you often got a radical twist of the argument of some sort. Verso’s Haymarket Series, edited by “the two Mikes” — Davis and Sprinker — has powerfully contributed to reshaping US history.


With The Reckoning’s publication, you have now finished a complete history, going chronologically from the 1400s up to about 1900, of the rise, challenge to, reinvention of, and final decline of New World Slavery, from a quite rigorously Marxist historiographical perspective — which is an enormous achievement. What do you think is the importance of that tradition of history-writing for our understanding of this history of New World slavery today?


It’s certainly true that there’s now quite a solid coverage. I didn’t realize the work necessary on this topic was going to be quite so extended, although I’ve often been quite pleased at delay, because you learn more about what might have happened. There’s new research, and life itself somehow supplies ideas that fit the past.

Most recently, to give an example, take this business of the credit regime. The economic trouble since the financial crisis of the late 2000s has seen the emergence of derivative products and financialization, which is quite similar to the credit devices whose role I examine in The Reckoning.

I think there’s something about struggles around slavery that people find fascinating. Sometimes it may be that it’s a way of discrediting capitalism to say that part of the pressure of capitalist expansion will often turn out to involve primitive accumulation tendencies, whether that entails slavery or other forms of primitive accumulation — a rich concept developed by Marx.

I suppose there could come a time when these disputes really become just matters of historical interest. But look, for example, at the huge global impact of Black Lives Matter, and how the sight of a policeman kneeling on someone’s neck can have such a resonance in other societies that had slave colonies — FranceSpainPortugalthe Netherlands. I think there’s something there from the mechanisms of enslavement, which hasn’t been totally solved by historians, even though we have outstanding works by people like James Oakes and Daniel Rood.


This is a historical character who would have featured more in The Making than your latest book, but what did you make of the toppling into Bristol Harbor of the statue of Royal African Company slave trader Edward Colston back in 2020?


Personally I did quite like to see it. Some of my friends were saying that it didn’t really change anything very much and was a distraction. But I thought we need symbols and some sense of scale. We might now know more about the fate of slavery and the slave owners. Certainly the toppling of that statue brought to light the size and scope of Colston’s activities. I have myself been surprised — although I really should not be — by quite how much British society was dependent on the slave regime that it had built in the Americas.


In the conclusion to The Reckoning, you discuss the legacies and inheritances of the Second Slavery for the world that followed its collapse. You’ve argued that there was a reinvention of racial slavery at the beginning of the nineteenth century to become the Second Slavery, but you impugn whether there can be said to have been any “Third Slavery” as such — though you do point to regimes like forced labor in the colonial Belgian Congo Free State as exemplary of its afterlives. What were the afterlives of the Second Slavery for the capitalist world in the twentieth century and beyond?


I think it’s been shown that capitalism, left to its own devices, will display a hunger for surplus value that will generate new forms of predatory exploitation of labor and wastage of natural resources, if it isn’t checked and combatted very skillfully. This is one reason why the varieties of capitalism need to be thoroughly and vigilantly investigated and analyzed.

Robin Blackburn is the author of The Making of New World SlaveryThe Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, and The Reckoning. He is emeritus professor at the University of Essex and was a distinguished visiting professor at the New School in New York.

Owen Dowling is a historian and archival researcher at Tribune.

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