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Quarterly Journal of Revolutionary Marxism

Issue 99 | Winter 201516

Features
Interview
Exclusive interview with Antonis Davanellos

The Left after Syriza. . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1


Lee Sustar

From slowdown to slump?. . . . . . . 16


Nicole Colson
Briefing

John Riddell
Introducing excerpts from the Communist
Internationals Third Congress

A workers International
at a turning point . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 59
Mike Taber and John Riddell
The Cominterns Third Congress

Europes refugee crisis . . . . . . . . . 21

A school of
revolutionary strategy. . . . . . . . . . 64

Roland Pfefferkorn

Tom Lewis and Sandra Sousa

Inequality and
social crisis in Europe. . . . . . . . . . . 34

Knowledge and politics across


the North/South divide. . . . . . . . . 77

Marcelo Yunes, Socialismo o Barbarie


The Latin American economy: Part two

The end of the Golden Decade. 46

Featured review
Todd Chretien
Lenin, the Bolsheviks, and the electoral arena

Revolutionary parliamentarism?. 94
Lenins Electoral Strategy from Marx and Engels through the Revolution of 1905 and Lenins Electoral
Strategy from 1907 to the October Revolution of 1917 by August H. Nimtz

Reviews
Aaron Amaral

Sandy Boyer

The rise and fall of Syriza . . . . . . 109

Slavery, capitalism,
and imperialism . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 113

Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth by Kevin Ovenden

The Half Has Never Been Told by Edward E.


Baptist, Empire of Cotton by Sven Beckert, River
of Dark Dreams by Walter Johnson, and The
Business of Slavery and the Rise of Capitalism by
Calvin Schermerhorn

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Edward E. Baptist

The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery


and the Making of American Capitalism
Basic Books, 2014 528 pages $35
Sven Beckert

Empire of Cotton: A Global History


Alfred A. Knopf, 2014 640 pages $35
Walter Johnson

River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire


in the Cotton Kingdom
Belknap Press, 2013 560 pages $35
Calvin Schermerhorn

The Business of Slavery and the Rise of


American Capitalism, 1815-1860
Yale University Press, 2015 352 pages $65

Slavery, capitalism,
and imperialism
Review by Sandy Boyer

W
Sandy Boyer is a longtime socialist based in
New York. He writes for
Socialist Worker online
and co-hosts a weekly
radio show Radio Free
Eireann on WBAI Radio.

riting about American slavery can never


be entirely separated from Black peoples
struggle for freedom. Until Kenneth M.
Stamp published The Peculiar Institution, Uriah B. Philips
assumption that Black people are by racial quality, submissive, light-hearted, and imitative was the virtually
unchallenged orthodoxy among American historians.
Philips believed that the slave trade had little more effect on his temperament than on his complexion. It may
not be entirely coincidental that Stamp copyrighted his
book in 1956, the same year that the Montgomery Bus
Boycott, which began in 1955, finally triumphed.
Fortunately, writing about slavery has come a
long way since 1956. Its hard to imagine that Philips
ideas could even find a serious publisher today. These
books focus on slavery and capitalism (The Half
Has Never Been Told and The Business of Slavery); the
global cotton industry (Empire of Cotton); and slave
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imperialismthe invasions of Cuba and Nicaragua (River of Dark Dreams.) At


best, they deserve to be not only widely read, but also discussed and debated.
The history of slavery is far too important to be left to professional historians.
It is impossible to fully understand the American experience, up to and including the Black Lives Matter movement, without understanding slavery.
Edward E. Baptists The Half Has Never Been Told is probably the best history of slavery and US capitalism that were going to get. The fact that its clearly
and compellingly written makes The Half Has Never Been Told even more essential. Baptist tells the story very largely through the experiences of enslaved
people themselves, relying on more than a hundred autobiographies published
by people who escaped from slavery, and about 2,000 interviews with formerly
enslaved people conducted by the Works Progress Administration.
While all the books deal to one extent or another with the slave trade
between the upper and lower South, it is Baptist who portrays it through
the experience of people like Charles Ball who was marched from Virginia
to South Carolina as part of a thirty-three-man coffleindividual slaves
chained together from their wrist manacles to their iron collars. Women
were roped together and followed behind. They covered ten to twenty miles
a day. Ball would later write that Time did not reconcile me to my chains
but it made me familiar with them.
The Half Has Never Been Told shows that torture was integral to slavery.
Baptist quotes a Mississippi overseer telling his friends that the whip was
as important to making cotton grow as sunshine and rain. The whip might
open deep gashes in the skin of its victim, make them tremble or dance
but it did not disable them. Enslaved people were given a quota of cotton they had to pick every day. Anyone who didnt make their quota was
whipped. As soon as they made this quota, a new higher one was required,
again on pain of the whip.
After his escape from slavery, John Brown recalled that as I picked so
well at first, more was required of me, and if I flagged for a minute, the whip
was applied liberally to keep me up to my mark. By being driven in this way,
at last I was able to pick a hundred and sixty pounds a day after starting at a
minimum requirement of 100.
Baptist develops an analogy of a whipping machine from Henry Clay,
who was born into slavery in the Carolinas and moved west as a boy. He described the whipping machine as a big wooden wheel and when you tromp
the treadle the big wheel go round. On that wheel was four or five leather
straps with holes cut in them to make blisters and you lay the negro down
to the bench and you tie him to it. Baptist concludes, Most likely Clay was
using a metaphorical argument to say that every cotton labor camp, carved
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out of the southwestern woods, used torture as its central technology.


Metaphor, or not, the whipping machine was frighteningly effective.
The amount of cotton the South grew increased almost every single year
from 1800, when enslaved African-Americans made 1.4 million pounds of
cotton, to 1860 when they harvested almost 2 billion pounds. Neither the
advent of the cotton gin nor the turn to the hardier, more flexible long stem
cotton, both at the end of the eighteenth century, can account for this amazing growth in slave productivity in the nineteenth century.
The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, more than any of these booksand as its subtitle suggestsemphasizes
that US industrial capitalism was built on the backs of enslaved people. Baptist writes that cotton became the dominant driver of US economic growth.
In 1802 cotton already accounted for 14 percent of all the value of US exports,
but by 1830 it accounted for 42 percentin an economy reliant on exports
to acquire the goods and credit it needed for growth. Indeed, as he explains
in his introduction, his aim is to debunk what is still a commonly held view
among some historians that slavery was a premodern institution that was not
committed to profit-seeking, and that American slavery was fundamentally
different from the rest of the modern economy and separate from it.
New Englands textile mills, which turned southern cotton into thread
and cloth, paved the way for the industrialization of the United States. In the
process they created the first modern American working class and increased
the demand for everything from iron goods to shoes.
But its impossible to agree with Baptist, that all northern whites had benefited from the deepened exploitation of enslaved people. While slavery made
new textile jobs possible, the women and children working twelve hours a day,
six days a week, for starvation wages, were hardly benefiting from the new industrial order built on enslaved peoples labor. But this is still a fairly minor
problem in the context of The Half Has Never Been Tolds total achievement.
In Empire of Cotton Sven Beckert traces the history of cottons production and exchange stretching from before the start of the Common Era to
today, when Asian production has largely supplanted by Europe and the
US. Beckert uses cotton to explain what he calls the making and remaking of global capitalism. A global history may be the best way to address
the history of capitalism, which is quintessentially an international system.
Precisely because this is global history, Empire of Cotton is not intended as
a history of US slavery. It is still full of key insights that help to explain both
slavery itself and its roots in an international capitalist system.
Slaveholders were linked to the financial markets by factorslocal
merchants who advanced them money against their cotton crops. These
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loans paid for everything from slaves and cottonseed to food and clothing.
Merchants in turn went to New York banks and through them the London
money markets for their funds, then took the cotton and sold it, often in
New Orleans. Cotton that was grown in Mississippi found its way, often via
New York, to Manchester, the center of cotton textile production, where it
was transformed into thread, cloth, and clothing that was sold in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas.
Enslaved people experienced the international cotton trade directly. Beckert quotes John Brown who escaped from slavery as saying, When the price
of cotton [rises] in the English market the poor slaves immediately feel the
effect, for they are harder driven, and the whip is kept more constantly going.
Empire of Cotton stresses that slaveholders prosperity and expansion was
only made possible by their domination of federal and state governments. The
federal government opened up vast new territories for slavery by purchase
(the Louisiana Purchase) and conquest (Florida and Texas.) As federal troops
cleared native people off their land, slavery moved in behind them. Later, although this isnt covered in Empire of Cotton, the US government insulated
slavery from virtually any challenge with the Dred Scott decision, the Fugitive
Slave Act, and even by prohibiting petitions against slavery from being presented to the House of Representatives. Its little wonder that it was when enslavers lost their control of the federal government that they decided to secede.
Southern state governments provided internal improvements making it
possible to move cotton to market more cheaply and quickly. The United
States already had navigable rivers, especially the Mississippi and its tributaries. Now state governments financed the building of railroads deeper and
deeper into the hinterland. Baptist, in The Half Has Never Been Told, also
shows how southern state governments opened up international financing
for enslavers by guaranteeing bonds based on the title deeds of slaves.
Empire of Cottons treatment of soil exhaustion, slaverys expansion, and
eventually the Civil War makes it especially valuable. King Cotton literally
wore out the land every few years. Beckert quotes one planter as saying We
appear to have but one rulethat is to make as much cotton as we can, and
wear out as much land as we can . . . lands that once produced one thousand
pounds of cotton to the acre, will not bring more than four hundred pounds.
Agricultural reformers urged that the land should be refreshed by crop rotation, planting legumes, or employing expensive fertilizers. Enslavers, often in
debt to merchants, found it cheaper and easier to keep moving south and west.
They began by moving from the upper southern states including Maryland, Virginia, and Kentucky, into South Carolina and Georgia. Later they
brought slaves into Alabama and Louisiana, and ultimately Mississippi,
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Arkansas, and even Texas. This continual expansion was made possible by
the internal slave trade that forcibly moved up to a million enslaved people
to the Deep South, the great majority to be used to grow cotton.
Unique among these books, Empire of Cotton explicitly roots the Civil
War in a conflict between northern industrialists and the slave-holding class
over control of the federal government. As the war approached, industrial capitalists and the slave-owning class wanted very different things from the state.
Industrialists increasingly wanted to strengthen the federal government. They
were trying to construct what Beckert calls a political economy of domestic
industrialization in tandem with commercial agriculture based on free labor.
Enslavers feared, not without reason, that a strengthened federal government would threaten their peculiar institution. They required a state
that would constantly make new lands available for cotton and slavery. They
needed the federal government to guarantee their right to hold slaves or at
the very least to remain ostensibly neutral. Above all, they were out to keep
the growing anti-slavery forces out of power
Beckert concludes that the shifting balance of social power among different business groups proved momentousthe schism between economic
elites was so great that, in a moment of great crisis even merchant capitalists,
aligned with slave owners, dropped their old allies.
While Empire of Cotton isnt, and doesnt pretend to be, a history of US
slavery, it is still an extremely rewarding and important work. If nothing else,
global history rooted in the Marxist intellectual traditionone that, like
Half Has Never Been Told shows the close connection between slavery and
the rise of modern capitalismis still a rare and very valuable resource.
In River of Dark Dreams Walter Johnson describes slaveholders response to two separate problems they saw threatening their domination.
Slaveholders felt income that should belong to them was going to New York
instead. Cotton bound for Liverpool was actually shipped out of New York.
According to Johnson, contemporary estimates were that forty cents on every dollar earned in the cotton market was being spent in New York.
As well, by the 1850s the high price of slaves threatened to make it impossible for non-slaveholding white men to acquire slaves and become full
members of the master class.
The first response was what became known as filibusteringa series of attempts to extend slavery into Central Americafirst Cuba, then
Nicaragua, then Honduras. The second was a movement to re-open the Atlantic slave trade. If neither ultimately succeeded, for a few brief years they
captured the imagination of many southerners with a vision of a resurgent
South freed of northern domination. In their minds eye, they could see a
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land where every white man would be entitled to live in comfort from the
labor of his own slaves. River of Dark Dreams tells the story of the rise and
ultimate fall of these movements.
In the 1840s and 50s many slaveholders dreamed of freeing Cuba
from Spain. Then it could be annexed and made part of the US slave empire.
Johnson writes that they felt a free Cuba would revitalize the Mississippi
Valleys great commercial artery and its imperial city [New Orleans], drawing the trade unnaturally diverted to the north and east by commercial artifice back to its natural pathway toward the sea.
Slaveholders backed two especially unsuccessful invasions of Cuba led
by Narcisco Lopez, a Venezuelan born adventurer. His invasions made the
Bay of Pigs look like a triumph. Instead of rallying to Lopez, Cubans fought
for Spain. When the second invasion collapsed in 1851, Lopez was garroted
to death in a Havana square.
William Walker, a failed swashbuckler who liked to be called The Gray
Eyed Man of Destiny, launched unsuccessful invasions of first Nicaragua
and then Honduras. Walker declared, The introduction of Negro slavery
constitutes the speediest and most efficient means for enabling the white
race to establish itself permanently in Central America.
The combined opposition of the US government, Costa Rica, and Honduras, and the railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbiltwhom Walker had
double-crosseddefeated Walkers expeditions. He was ultimately executed in Honduras after a bungled invasion.
Lopez and Walker were hailed as heroes, especially in Louisiana and
Mississippi. But no more than a few hundred men ever actually enlisted to
fight with them. Apparently it was easier and vastly safer to fantasize about
a life of luxury on a slave plantation in Central America than to actually put
your life on the line.
The campaign to reopen the slave trade was fueled by anxiety about the
loyalty of white men who, by 1850, could no longer hope to buy slaves. Johnson writes that slaveholders worried about a weakening of the foundation
of the social order or even a threat to the entire integrity of the social constitution of the South. In 1857 Hinton Rowan Hilton intensified their fears
when he published The Impending Crisis of the South, charging that nonslaveholding whites were at risk of being enslaved by the slaveholders. He called
for slaveholders to pay reparations for their damage to the southern economy, as well as to free the slaves and pay to send them to Africa. Hiltons book
caused alarm and furor in the South. Although it was banned and burned,
nearly 150,000 copies were circulated.
Slaveholders in the lower South responded with a drive to reopen the
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slave trade. They argued that the new influx of enslaved people would make
it feasible for virtually every white man to buy at least some slaves. This may
have looked fine in Mississippi, Alabama, or Louisiana where slaves were
still being imported. But the upper SouthVirginia, Georgia, and North
Carolina among othersdepended on the revenue they made from selling
enslaved people further south. The slave trade proposal ultimately failed because it threatened to split the South. In 1861 the Confederate constitution
outlawed the importation of African Negroes from any foreign country.
River of Dark Dreams is a frequently fascinating and even enthralling
book. It describes episodes like filibustering and the campaign to reopen the
slave trade that have been largely ignored. In the process, it illuminates the
evolution of the slaveholders white supremacist ideology.
Despite this, there is something unsatisfying about a history that concentrates so exclusively on what might have been at the expense of what actually happened. There are whole chapters on Cuba and Nicaragua but barely a
mention of the actual contest over slaverys expansionthe Missouri Compromise, the Kansas Civil War, or even the election of Abraham Lincoln.
General readers, as opposed to scholars, may require history that illuminates where we are and hopefully even where we are going. Despite its many
significant contributions, River of Dark Dreams is not that history.
In The Business of Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism, Calvin
Schermerhorn sets out to use the slave trade to illuminate the development
of modern American capitalism.
He writes that Hands that drew bills of exchange, graded and traded commodities, or trimmed the sails of merchant vessels were as important to the
process of slaving as hands that picked cotton or those that grabbed hold of
whips, grasped the throats, or groped the loins of African-descended captives.
Each chapter in The Business of Slavery focuses on a different enslaver
who was hoping to get rich off the trade in enslaved people. Schermerhorn
uses these chapters to develop useful perspectives on the development of
slave capitalism including: how the business of slavery benefited enormously
from federal policies that among other things cleared native people off their
land, built roads, and protected enslavers from foreign competition; property banks and mortgages based on slave deeds enabled investors in London
and New York to profit from the sale of enslaved people without actually
owning a human being; and by the 1850s slavery capitalism had been developed into pro-slavery imperialism with the annexation of Texas and invasion
of Nicaragua.
Ultimately, however, this focus on the slave trade, as opposed to slavery
in the cotton fields and sugar plantations is unsuccessful. It means that the
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book focuses far more on slave traders than on enslaved people. It tends to
ignore slavery at the actual point of production that yielded the cotton and
sugar that generated the Souths wealth. This was at least as critical to the
business of slavery as the trade in enslaved people.
Schermerhorn treats the Civil War as a somewhat irrational southern
response to Lincolns opposition to the expansion of slavery. He points out,
accurately enough, that when the south seceded Lincoln wasnt proposing
to abolish slavery. But slave capitalism, like capitalism itself, had to expand
or die. In Empire of Cotton, Sven Beckert documents how cotton continually
killed the soil, forcing slavery to migrate south and west. Any threat to slaverys continuous right to expand was a threat to slavery itself. The style of
The Business of Slavery is often convoluted and cumbersome. This may seem
to be a minor point but if its worth trying to trace the connections between
capitalism and slavery, its worth making that analysis accessible beyond the
narrow circle of specialists and academic historians.
Few people are likely to read all of these books. If youre only going to
read one, by all means make it The Half Has Never Been Told. If you can read
one more, you should find Empire of Cotton very rewarding.

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