Slavery, Capitalism, and the Politics of Abolition

Slavery in America, Brazil, and Cuba relied on capitalist markets, which supplied credit and demand for slave-made goods. The Reckoning, Robin Blackburn’s monumental history, offers a dizzying account of the politics behind this system’s rise and fall.

Heroes of the Colored Race, after a print published in the early 1880s. (Ken Welsh / Design Pics / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

W. E. B. Du Bois called the rise and fall of slavery in the Americas the “most magnificent drama in the last thousand years of human history.” It is a drama that continues to grip the popular imagination, which has its own varying interpretations: slavery as an “original sin” cursing the New World to perpetual racial domination; abolition as a pure moral crusade against a white supremacist regime run by and for a class of cruel slaveholders; slavery as a premodern blight holding back progress; abolition as the historically inevitable forward march of progress; abolition as a historical aberration.

Historians, even those who have embraced these sweeping narratives, have found it helpful to see the drama of New World slavery as occurring in two acts. From the first years of European colonization up through the early nineteenth century there was a “First Slavery,” pioneering the growth of commodity plantations in the Americas under the aegis of imperial protection.

Then, following the Haitian Revolution and the destruction of slavery in much of the Caribbean and Latin America, there emerged a nineteenth-century “Second Slavery” centered in America, Brazil, and Cuba (the ABC territories, respectively focused on cotton, coffee, and sugar). In addition to covering new geographic space, this slavery was “more autonomous, more durable and, in market terms, more ‘productive’ . . . capable of withstanding the challenge of the Age of Revolution and meeting the rising demand for plantation produce.” This is the periodization offered by eminent Marxist historian Robin Blackburn in his The Reckoning: From the Second Slavery to Abolition, 1776–1888.

The Reckoning is the capstone volume to Blackburn’s decades-long project chronicling the rise and fall of slavery in the Americas, finishing off a trilogy that he began with The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 1776–1848, which considers the emancipation movements in British, French, and Spanish New World colonies. Blackburn then went backward in his next installment, The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492–1800, which details the origins of the slave systems upended by the Age of Revolutions. (Two companion volumes from Blackburn supplement these core three — An Unfinished Revolution: Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln and The American Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights).

Completing this series of tomes with a detailed study of nineteenth-century slavery and emancipation in the ABC territories, The Reckoning presents this dramatic tale stripped of national mythologizing and moralistic oppositions of ahistorical good and evil. It sets, and succeeds, at the task of rising above the trite assumptions that too often govern our understandings of bondage and freedom.

In Blackburn’s narrative, the Second Slavery emerges as a messy, ever-shifting, self-contradicting process, governed by conflicting agents with often-shifting loyalties and interests. It was a horrible miracle: a system of absolute domination expanding as old orders crumbled around it, its masters finding new ways to accommodate it to and imbricate it within the nineteenth-century order of liberal capitalism. The Second Slavery was, Blackburn insists, “locked in the orbit of industrial capital” which sustained it by providing markets for the commodities produced through forced labor and credit for a highly speculative market in human beings.

Also central to his telling, though, is an emphasis on this slavery’s historical contingency, and thus political choices — rather than just economic determinants — necessary to both maintain and undermine its dominance. Blackburn remains cognizant of the structural forces of class unique to Marxist history writing, while nonetheless insisting on the way actors’ specific, contextual choices shaped the very possibility of those forces. Slaveholders had to act to make themselves as a ruling class, to defend themselves from “revolutionary events which could have consumed them whole.” Their transient success was no given, and their political maneuvering ultimately faced too many constraints and too much opposition.

In positing nineteenth-century slavery as in and of a kind with contemporary capitalism, there is a danger of both pessimistic determinism that seems unable to explain abolition’s progress (if capitalism always-already appears slave-based, how do we explain something like the US Civil War?) and sloppy abstraction. It is too easy to say, even if it is true, that capitalist production (regardless of its defining logics of free labor) often relies on unfree labor in the global periphery. Blackburn avoids these pitfalls; his account reminds us that we can only make such abstractions by first describing particular empirical realities. We must be able to explain why, how, and in what forms certain instances of unfree labor under capitalism maintained themselves and gave way to other arrangements. The Second Slavery was constitutively impermanent, useful in the way it “helped to bridge the gaps” in capitalism’s “uneven and incomplete” nineteenth-century advance. This advance was no “irresistible march of progress,” but was actually a “succession of clear or concealed choices, for-or-against slavery being one of the most important.” “Against slavery” won out — but not without a political struggle.

Political Preconditions of the Second Slavery

In a profound irony, the Second Slavery’s rise was made possible by the success of great world-historic fights for political freedom. “The victories of the American Revolution in 1783 and the Haitian Revolution in 1804,” Blackburn writes, “had highly contradictory impacts.” The former solidified the power of a now politically independent slaveholder class to geographically expand production; the destruction of slavery in Saint-Domingue opened an opportunity for sugar planters elsewhere, as in Cuba, to meet demand.

Downstream political changes around this period also occasioned the advance of the sugar plantation complex on this Spanish island — a so-called Cuban miracle. Metropolitan reforms and global revolutionary war led to a “Cubanization” of commercial production: infrastructure development on the island through the creation of colonial monopolies; a subsequent, free-trade-inflected relaxation of market controls, meant to encourage revenue growth and readily accepted by the nascent planter class; and, crucially, more complete access to supplies, slaves, and buyers as the metropole’s control over trade crumbled during the Napoleonic wars. Similarly, in Brazil, trade liberalization (and, unlike Cuba, political independence in 1822) fostered a “slave-trade bonanza” that “signalled an expansion of Brazil’s productive capacity” between 1780 and 1830.

Meanwhile, as the United States had already achieved independence, the spread of slavery became tied to the project of protecting new political borders. The southern theater of the War of 1812 against the British — and the many Indian removal offensives from the 1780s onward — can thus be understood as projects of security maintenance against “incipient collaboration between the Indians, the blacks, the British and the Spanish” that could threaten newly minted US dominance.

The Second Slavery, Blackburn emphasizes, came to new territories through brute force — that of the state, backing the interests of elite, slaveholding settlers. Settlement was not simply led by small freeholders working their own land, but pioneered by planters’ financial, speculative aim to extract monetary value — through slaves — from the land. The prospect of available land meant that free labor on plantations was effectively ruled out by a frontier political economy dominated by commercial planters eating up the land. In sparsely populated areas, Blackburn notes, planters faced a labor shortage; free European migrants would sooner strike off on their own than submit to labor on a plantation. Yet “banks and cotton factors” were “impatient and eager for a quick profit,” and slavery “enabled land to be quickly cleared and brought into cultivation.”

Colonization required coercion, through the barrel of the gun and the crack of the whip. As Marx himself observed in his section on colonization in Capital, “spontaneous, unregulated” colonization by yeomen would not yield itself to capitalist accumulation. The latter would rather work merely to reproduce their own lives, whereas capitalism relies on the exploitation of labor. Accordingly Marx concluded that “the impulse to self-expropriation on the part of labouring humanity for the glory of capital, exists so little that slavery . . . is the sole natural basis of Colonial wealth.”

Capitalism and Slavery

Capital’s Promethean dynamism and mercurial waves were crucial to the Second Slavery’s distinctive rise. Credit was king. The Cuban sugar boom from the 1780s on was made possible by planters’ newfound access to credit via local merchants; through the course of the nineteenth century, the wealthiest Cuban planters plowed returns from trade and railway building back into agriculture. In Brazil, international commercial establishments in major cities dispensed credit upon which slavery’s development leaned.

American cotton planters (who arrived as settlers “liberally endowed with credit and every commercial facility”) promised their future crop as collateral for the advances they received to buy supplies for cultivation each season. The high market value of their enslaved laborers especially helped unleash the capitalist productivity of their domain. Building upon the work of historian John Clegg, Blackburn notes that US planters took advantage of a holdover British colonial law from 1732 lifting restrictions on what assets could be used as collateral. Planters could therefore put up slaves — like cotton or land — to receive credit, cultivating a financial market in slaves.

Without the colonial mercantile protection of the First Slavery, this expansion of indebtedness was a “goad to produce more and to be more open to innovation,” as it increased planters’ dependence on market profitability (and slave production was, as Blackburn insists, quite profitable) to remain solvent. “[C]redit discipline” was among the “main drivers” of plantation output in the United States, leading planters to become as obsessed with breeding more bountiful cotton strains as with driving their slaves all the harder.

The enslaved were a crucial node in the matrix of planter finance, existing simultaneously as capital investments and exploited laborers — in Marxian terms, their labor power was purchased at once in a lump sum. The chattel principle solidified in the Second Slavery; manumissions decreased in Cuba and Brazil, where they had once been more frequent than in the US South. As slave labor became more valuable, increased slave prices made it harder to self-purchase freedom, while also making slaves an estate’s “most important” financial asset: the alchemy of the market had given these modern representatives of an ancient form of exploitation an “ever-more capitalist character.”

As the value of slaves rose and indebtedness deepened, planters sought to “extract the maximum of continuous labour from their chattels, and in this way make good on their heavy initial investment.” Near-constant forced labor became the norm, whether contributing to commodity production, or to the home manufacture needed to sustain plantation life.

Productivity was maintained by brute violence from the master and overseer, but was further refined by planters’ adoption and fine-tuning of capitalist labor patterns — standardization, quantified records. As Marx remarked in Capital, slave labor’s subsumption into the capitalist world market allowed “the civilised horrors of over-work” to be easily “granted onto the barbaric horrors of slavery.”

Among the achievements of The Reckoning is adding clarity to the long debate over the relationship between slavery and capitalism. Space does not permit a full recounting of these discussions; it is enough to say that Blackburn comes out against interpretations that see nineteenth-century slavery as necessary for, prior to, or generative of the mechanisms specific to capitalist growth in the US North and Britain/Europe.

In previous work he has endorsed a qualified version of the thesis, posited by the historian and politician Eric Williams, that England’s eighteenth-century capitalist rise was made possible by the “super-exploitation” of slaves in the Americas. But in the Reckoning, Blackburn asks readers to

turn the Williams thesis on its head, and ask how the rise of capitalism in Europe generated a more thoroughgoing slavery in the New World, one that required . . . the fungible structures of an enterprise dependent on world markets. . . . [I]n the construction of the Second Slavery the planters’ main motive was to make money . . .

The credit markets so key to the Second Slavery had to preexist it in order to be used; the same was true of the industrial demand that provided a home for the goods made on plantations. In other words, the free-labor capitalism of the metropole was not dependent on the Second Slavery, so much as the Second Slavery was dependent on free-labor capitalism.

Slaveholders had a two-sided relationship with the market. Ever-increasing plantation collateral value was only useful so long as the credit bubble didn’t burst (which it did, in cyclical periods of capitalist crisis); even if slave labor was profitable, money invested in it was money not invested in advanced technology, creating a Southern economy that was both incredibly profitable and underdeveloped.

Yet planters’ comparable lack of (non-slave) fixed capital — physical assets like machines and buildings — did not make them any less capitalist. Capitalism is not distinguished by any specific level of technological development so much as by the organization of production around maximized profit, and if this could be achieved by the superexploitation of human beings rather than investment in farming machinery, then so be it. Cotton, sugar, and coffee harvesting were, Blackburn tells us, hard to mechanize, requiring “great precision and intricate hand-eye coordination.” The “mass of field workers had aptitudes which the new machines could not mimic.” Mechanization was “selective,” mostly confined to processing raw cotton, coffee beans, and sugar cane so that more slave labor could be simultaneously allocated to the field.

This dependency on slave labor, paired with plantations’ geographic expansion and the slowing of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, produced some of the worst cruelties of the slave system. In the United States, the Upper South developed into a center for slave “breeding.” There, violently separated family members were sold to the cotton lords further south. A similar dynamic arose in Brazil; the stagnation of the sugar economy of the North led planters to begin selling slaves to coffee planters in the South. US plantations distinguished themselves in cultivating self-reproducing slave populations (families were a cheaper proposition than constant new purchases), while overwork-to-the-death of newly imported Africans, especially on sugar plantations, was more common among US planters’ Latin counterparts.

However different slaveries in the ABC territories were, the demands of capitalist production were universal. Capitalism, Blackburn writes, “brought about a definite homogenization of basic features of the different American slave systems.” The diversity of slave occupations decreased as ever more slaves were forced into agricultural commodity production; labor regimens became measured by the clock; slaves became the most valuable asset for planters. “The success of commoditization required standardization,” Blackburn pithily surmises.

The Class Politics of Abolition

The shared Atlantic context that produced such similar patterns among ABC slaveholders was not just an economic one. A main geopolitical shift undergirding the Second Slavery, in an unlikely suggestion by Blackburn, was the Congress of Vienna following the Napoleonic Wars, where European powers devised terms of continental peace. This restoration was not purely the triumph of Old World reaction, but also a securing of conditions of international cooperation that encouraged the rise of industrial capitalism: more regularized, open trade policies, and a peace that allowed metropolitan consumer demand to grow. Parallel to this economic development was a “bourgeoisification of politics”: propertied franchise, or the expectation thereof, became grounds for government legitimacy.

The advent of bourgeois democratic norms posed a problem for slaveholders, even as this class actively depended upon the free trade system and property rights undergirding these norms. Across the Atlantic — from the northern United States to Haiti, from the new Latin American republics to the British Empire — the Age of Revolutions was accompanied by the advance of antislavery measures. “From the outset,” Blackburn writes, “the Second Slavery was haunted by its betrayal of the ideals of creole republicanism.” This put the slave system in a situation in which slavers, facing antislavery proponents, “knew that they had to practise politics if they were to survive.”

Given their potentially uncertain political footing — as well as the settler frontier’s volatility — slaveholders had to forge cross-class alliances to maintain power. A perverted republicanism emerged; planter revolutionaries like Thomas Jefferson united with popular classes to ascend to power, with successive political parties cobbling together cross-sectional allegiances around shared, national concerns, like infrastructure.

Blackburn makes clear that the regimes of the Second Slavery in part survived the Age of Revolutions because slaves, however numerous, were in the minority in the ABC polities. This ensured that, in contrast to Haiti, revolt could always be comfortably repressed by militias of nonslaveholders employed by the master class. However, this population distribution produced a profound contradiction: a substantial coalition of classes existed in the ABC countries that were not dependent on chattel slavery. They could thus develop an oppositional politics, given voice in a context of bourgeois democracy. Alliances couldn’t be guaranteed: “A slave regime born in compromise could be destroyed by it too.”

In narrating the dissolution of that compromise, Blackburn reverses the usual left-liberal nostrum that the US Civil War was “caused by slavery.” He suggests instead that it was antislavery that “set alight the sectional blaze.” The difference is key. “Abolitionists were,” Blackburn contends, “the innovators, and slave-holders the defenders of the status quo.”

The Reckoning offers a class analysis of this antislavery milieu. Abolitionism, spearheaded in the 1830s by a variety of often-evangelical small producers, petty bourgeoisie, and professionals organized into groups like the American Anti-Slavery Society, was initially a moralist political response to a sense of dislocation in an increasingly commercial society (a social order dominated by slaveholders, their Northern allies, and a permissive state). This orientation paired with certain Puritanical, conservative concerns — temperance, the sanctity of the family violated by both chattel slavery and urban vice.

Still, given slaveholders’ undue governmental influence and slavery’s economic importance, abolitionism implied a “radical questioning of the political and social order.” It took the next two decades to build a significant mass politics of antislavery that appealed to “organized labour and the land-hungry offspring of northern farmers,” attracting the interest of workers anxious to preserve the dignity labor against slaveholders’ degradations and desirous of Western emigration free of slaveholder encroachment.

Blackburn is particularly adept at highlighting the unforced errors of the proslavery camp. Masses of Northerners who had no truck in ideological abolitionism came to see that the slave power threatened their own sense of political independence: the 1835 “gag rule” tabling congressional petitions related to slavery; the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law requiring escaped slaves in free states to be returned to their masters; the precedent-upsetting Kansas-Nebraska Act that threatened to open free territory to slaveholding settlers; the 1857 Dred Scott decision that effectively declared slavery a nationally recognized institution.

As the national Democratic Party increasingly endorsed proslavery expansionism, the cross-sectional coalitions within the Democratic and Whig parties came undone; the latter ultimately collapsed, paving the way for the antislavery Republicans, composed of Northern defectors from both parties. Regional sectionalism itself had been recast in terms of slavery within political, religious, and civil society organizations — in the words of arch-proslavery-politician John Calhoun, “sundering and weakening the cords” that bound the Union together.

Through the 1850s what Blackburn calls “Radical Abolition,” a movement that was “willing to work within existing political institutions but determined to combine this with direct action against slavery, especially by aiding fugitives,” emerged. This potent force — “the courage of abolitionists, the guile of anti-slavery politicians and reawakened sectional animosity” — had “combined to bring about a sea-change of northern opinion,” delivering antislavery Republican Abraham Lincoln to the White House in the election of 1860. This was a bridge too far for slaveholders.

States For and Against Slavery

The central contradiction that led to the Civil War was, on Blackburn’s telling, the deep tension between slavery and the aspirations of a democratic polity. “Both sections,” Southern slaveholders and their broadly antislavery Northern opponents, “now aimed at a government permanently responsible to their interests.” The underpinning of war for the South, then, was not vulgarly economic, but about keeping the political power necessary to maintain a particular regime of capital accumulation (slavery) that was at odds with the experience and vision of Northern capitalism and democratic civil society — regardless of the important economic ties between the two regions.

Secession emerged out of an abandonment of political attempts to keep slavery alive within the Union. In a word: slaveholders saw the federal state as useful until it wasn’t. It was why they, in Blackburn’s turn of phrase, “bet the farm on such a risky prospect as Secession” despite having amassed considerable power. For them and their peers in Cuba and Brazil, loyalty to the state’s integrity was a virtue that had to be balanced against the preservation of the slave system, and traded for it if need be. But this also meant that quasi-democratic governments could cast slavery as part of a broader politics — inclusive of nonslaveholding citizens — that had at its core the continued existence of the state. Accordingly, Blackburn writes, “abolition came as the result of a conflict between the format and structure of the modern state and the pretentions of the slave-holders.”

In Cuba, slaveholders relied on a state guarantor less at risk of infiltration by antislavery troublemakers: following Spain’s loss of its mainland American colonies in the early 1800s, the faltering empire developed a “new colonial system built around Cuba’s slave plantations” existing in a protected market. With the metropolitan treasury thus dependent, Spanish rulers devised a “política de atracción” — conciliation toward the Cuban elite that involved them further in colonial administration and staved off rumblings of independence. Especially following the US Civil War, though, Spanish leaders recognized that maintenance of American slavery was no longer tenable, and thus found themselves in a bind: “In the long run, Spanish rule no doubt required the suppression of slavery. But in the short run, Spanish preparedness to defend slavery helped to reconcile Cuban slave owners to Spanish rule.”

Blackburn paints the Cuban situation as a kind of inversion of the pre–civil war United States, in the constellation of slaveholders, the state, and the politics of separatism and (anti)slavery — in this case, the state gave slaveholders reason to remain loyal. Given that for the time being the state found itself dependent on the slaveholders (unlike in the United States), it was not as obvious that the apparent contradictions would lead to a slavery-fueled conflagration. Slavery’s status could be used by the Spanish state as a carrot or a stick to temper demands for greater Cuban autonomy.

Outright separatists saw this strategic tie between Spanish rule and slavery’s maintenance, even as the política de atracción had given them space to organize. Many of these dissidents were based in the Oriente, less dependent on export-producing slavery than the big slaveholding sugar planters of the west, and thus having no reason to continue tolerating the expenses forced upon them by Spanish taxation and mercantilism. They had no “Faustian pact with slave trafficking”; thus “their patriotic inclinations were not restrained by thoughts of economic interest and security.” An existing “tepid,” moralistic middle-class abolitionism could be compounded by a diverse cross-class coalition of rebels, whose radical wing was encouraged by Northern victory in the United States to “identify itself clearly with abolitionism.”

Thus, when separatist revolt broke out in 1868, its leader Carlos Manuel de Céspedes could declare the necessity of abolition in a free Cuba. Still, given the balance of forces, a “cruel paradox,” reminiscent of that experienced by the Spanish state itself, remained: antislavery separatists had to contend with winning financial and political support from western slaveholders. It was, however, only the material exigencies of war in the 1870s that could resolve this contradiction and translate rebels’ high-minded abolitionist rhetoric into slavery’s end.

Meanwhile, in Brazil, a series of negotiations between proslavery forces, antislavery forces, and an often-ambivalent state unfolded. In raw national numbers, slavery had already been in decline there since 1850, when the British successfully encouraged the end of legal Brazilian slave importations. Crucially, though, the slave population continued to grow during this period in the coffee-producing South, setting up a regional division that would be significant in slavery’s fall.

Politics were crucial in this protracted process, especially given the mutedly emancipationist orientation of the monarchy. Alongside the small minority of politically influential slaveholders was a vast free citizenry, half of whom were people of color; thus “any growth of civic consciousness” (as experienced during the 1865–70 war with Paraguay) could translate into a questioning of slavery. Add to that an influx of European immigrants, and the “wider class struggles of the new social formation undermined both slavery and the Empire which had defended it.” An increasingly heterogenous society pushed against a Second Slavery dependent on systemized homogenization.

The Paraguay war heightened the contradictions of a quasi-emancipationist regime reliant on slaveholder power: even as planters backed and helped finance the war, the monarchy sought to curry favor with external powers and shore up recruitment numbers through military manumission programs allowing slaves to gain freedom through fighting. For both practical and ideological reasons, the Brazilian state saw that it could not maintain legitimacy in victory as “an unrepentant slave power.”

King Pedro II himself proposed the “free womb law” enacted in 1871, decreeing children born to enslaved mothers free when they turned twenty-one, and providing for regional manumission funds. The imperial state, ever ambivalent, “had an interest in implementing the Law in the way least prejudicial to slave-holder interests,” such that the results were only “very modest instalments of emancipation.”

Parallel to this patchwork emancipationism was a deepening north/south economic rift. The competitiveness and high demand for southern coffee exports boosted Brazilian currency value, which hurt the more established sugar and cotton planters in the North, where slave values fell. As in the United States and Cuba (there, between east and west), sectoral and regional resentments arising from divergent paths of development could manifest as antislavery: “If the coffee boom was seen as prejudicing other sectors of the economy, and this boom rested on the continued exploitation of slave labor, then opposition to slavery could seem an appropriate response.”

This sentiment, however present among some Northern elites, was given life by the mass antislavery of the Afro-Brazilian population — “abolitionism was powered by the assertion of Afro-Brazilian identity in a creolized political and social order” — and the ideologically heterogenous petty-bourgeois and professional classes.

The 1880s saw mass abolitionist agitation. But, unlike in the United States, this movement never developed into a national antislavery political party, as the Brazilian Liberal, Conservative, and Republican parties all had their slaveholder loyalties. Further unlike the US North, which saw capitalist support for free laborism, the “abolitionist movement could not embrace the principal forces of capitalist advance in Brazil because the latter were implicated in the slave system.”

The fall of slavery there thus proceeded locally, relying on the contradictions of the regional divide. Beginning with the ban on interregional slave exports and subsequent abolition in the northeastern province of Ceará, emancipation proceeded apace between 1883 and 1885 in various provinces, encouraged by mass abolitionist demonstrations. At the same time, in the South, slavery’s institutional underpinning faltered in the midst of a coffee price depression. Creditors grew wary of lending to slaveowners, given that abolitionist agitation had called slavery’s continuation into question. The capitalist market had propped up slavery; now it was facilitating slavery’s fall.

These abolitionist domino effects put Brazilian slavery in “terminal crisis.” Between various compromise laws of gradual, compensated emancipation and local action, slave numbers had fallen precipitously. Still, proslavery elites held back the national government, prompting even further massive popular agitation. As in the United States and Cuba, popular antislavery partially emerged as the nonslaveholding majority recognized that slaveholders interests oppressed them, too. In this case, the compensated emancipation compromise favored by slaveholders angered citizens who saw their tax burden grow to enrich already-wealthy planters. Slaves, meanwhile, revolted and defected from plantations en masse with the help of free citizens. Finally, the national government had to act, signing into law immediate, unconditional emancipation in 1888.

Emancipation and War

Given the preceding decline of slave numbers in Brazil, legal abolition there had the odd quality of legally recognizing what was, in much of the country, already a fact. This final American emancipation thus demonstrated a pattern likewise present in Cuba and the United States, in the narrative offered by Blackburn: material realities of achieved freedom often outstripped ideological commitments to emancipation and their legal expressions. Leaders thus had to make pronouncements and policy adjustments to play catchup — which at the same time accelerated ongoing processes of emancipation — and be assured of their ultimate moral correctness.

Brazilian emancipation occurred in peacetime, but this pattern was most obvious during war in the United States and Cuba — the exigencies and chaos of conflict undermined slave society. The leaders of Cuban rebellion nodded toward eventual abolition, but “a more consequent commitment to emancipation also emerged within the rebel ranks” as independence and abolitionism became strategically tied. Local rebels effected abolition, obliging slaves to take up arms; eventually over half the rank-and-file soldiers were black or men of color, with numbers “swelled by recruitment among the former slaves.” The rebel army “was feared by large slave owners as a menace to the slave economy.” By the end of the war in 1878, the slave population had declined by 38 percent. This was partially due to an 1870 law freeing children born to slave mothers and slaves over sixty but also, significantly, thanks to rebel invasion or wartime escape.

Spain defeated the Cuban separatists, but wartime slave unrest provided a measure of antislavery progress. A provision to the 1870 law had prohibited further legislation on Cuban slavery until the end of the insurrection; now such a move was back on the table. Slavery’s preservation for the sake of imperial integrity and fiscal security was no longer an excuse once the empire’s existence was, for the time being, assured. The emancipation law finally signed in 1880 escorted slavery out with a “whimper rather than a bang.”

In contrast, the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery in the United States in 1865 was more of a bang: not only was it the first of the ABC abolitions, inspiring action in Cuba and Brazil, but it also followed four years of devastating warfare that had shown a military path to antislavery political transformation. Blackburn suggests that from the perspective of a Union government struggling in the first two years of fighting, a “new policy towards both slavery and the arming of the blacks” made sense. Reframing the war as one for human freedom — and not mere unionism — helped remedy sagging Northern morale. Hence Lincoln’s redefinition of war aims in December 1862: “In giving freedom to the slaves we assure freedom to the free.” War had radicalized the North.

There was also an eminently practical and strategic reason for this shift — as radical antislavery senator Charles Sumner had noted a year prior, “It is often said that the war will make an end of slavery. This is probable, but it is surer still that the overthrow of slavery will make an end of the war.” To undermine slavery was to undermine the workforce producing the provisions that, as Blackburn points out, were crucial to the Confederate war effort; it was to deprive slaveholders of their capital; it was to negate the very social system that the Confederacy was fighting for. Most of all, it provided hundreds of thousands of potential in situ recruits for the Union army.

Before the US government endorsed this war policy, slaves themselves were bringing it to life, leaving plantations and attaching themselves to Union brigades in what Du Bois famously described in Black Reconstruction as a “general strike.” The extent of this phenomenon and its obvious military benefit — paired with constant radical Republican pressure on Lincoln — brought about explicit legal encouragement through Confiscation Acts offering slaves a path to freedom behind Union lines as contraband “property” of the enemy. The Militia Act went further still, allowing black enlistment. Finally, in 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation declared all slaves of rebel slaveholders free. By the end of the war, the progress of freedom on the ground had initiated a major shift. If in his 1861 First Inaugural Address Lincoln cautiously said that he had “no purpose . . . to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists,” by his 1865 Second Inaugural Address, he spoke with revolutionary fervor of the ongoing antislavery war, which he described as bringing forth “the judgements of the Lord” against slaveholders.

Contradictions and Limits of Freedom

Blackburn is sober and nonidealistic about the revolutionary prospects of postabolition social reconstruction. About the United States, he writes, “The tribunes of anti-slavery had prevailed, yet proved unable to impose terms they claimed should be paramount.” Granted, he hardly discounts the successes of the Reconstruction era, from state constitutions enshrining the black vote, equality before the law, and tax-funded public works and education to the impressive degree of black political representation in the South during the immediate postwar years. But ultimately, he suggests that the class alignments produced by war and emancipation tragically undermined the fearless politics the federal state needed to fulfill the hopes of radical abolitionism.

In abolition’s wake, a variety of labor arrangements replaced slavery, from independent smallholding to waged labor to effective debt peonage on former slave plantations. Freedom in a simple sense meant the freedom to leave a plantation, and also a freedom to work less: the South thus faced a “labor shortage,” not due to a fall in the supply of laborers, but a fall in the supply of labor power they were willing to contribute. The success of Northern capital in the war had ironically destroyed one of the most capitalistically organized labor systems, moving the region from homogenization to greater unevenness and variation.

Still, between relationships of debt and the everyday white terror experienced by freedpeople, one thing was consistent: “extra-economic forms of coercion.” Here was a continuation of the same pattern present in the initial state-backed settlement of the cotton South — when the powers of production were underdeveloped, force decided the form of exploitation. But when that force came from the power of federal agents policing the conditions of free labor for former slaves, even some in the erstwhile antislavery North balked. A conservative wariness of state intervention in labor-capital relations grew, spearheaded by capitalists and their protectors in the Republic Party’s nonradical wing.

The Republicans were indeed fracturing. No longer united by the fight against slavery and the Confederacy, the party of Lincoln had to confront long-simmering internal contradictions. Blackburn notes that before the war, Republican language of free labor — a “protean and innately self-justifying historical force” — and the dignity thereof was plenty attractive to many working-class voters. But what resulted was a cross-class producerist alliance with the Northern bourgeoisie.

The Republican Party offered a defense of the “society of small-scale capitalism” against the depredations of the Slave Power, and thus “assembled a program that appealed to both workers and employers.” But the gap between these classes expanded during and after the war, as capitalists grew richer through the financial demands of wartime production and the mania of railroad expansion: “Republicans had become beholden to conservative propertied interest in a major way,” and could not politically afford to jettison these ties.

With abolition achieved and wartime’s extraordinary demands over, the Radicals no longer had a mandate, and they failed to adapt their petty-bourgeois program favoring freeholders and small producers to the new Northern proletariat. Their hopes for a confiscation bill — enforcing the state appropriation of the estates of seventy thousand “chief rebels” to distribute to black and white smallholders and pay off debts and pensions — failed, as capitalist-sympathetic Republicans thought this would set a “dangerous precedent” of a government favoring labor over capital in a context of rising Northern working-class consciousness.

Moreover, “Northern manufacturers looked forward to a speedy recovery of the plantation economy on the basis of wage labour,” and the destruction and redistribution of estates for the sake of smallholders would be antithetical to the resumption of commodity production. Indeed, as Blackburn argues, the effective destruction of slave capital had “cleared the way to the resulting ascendent capitalist order,” led by Northern capitalists plowing investments into Southern development. The Southern oligarchy was involved, but only as a “junior partner.”

Reconstruction-era Southern state governments were metonymical of the class split in the prewar antislavery coalition. These governments ostensibly aimed to govern in the favor of Southern workers, black and white, but were dependent on the sponsorship of Northern capitalists. Elites kept such administrations, for instance, from raising black militias that could have effectively countered white terror. The Reconstruction governments couldn’t withstand the pressure, and fell from 1869 to 1877. The Freedman’s Bureau, which provided a state infrastructure to support Southern laborers, was disbanded in 1870; planters began returning to their land. Many blacks fell into the debt bondage of sharecropping, their interests diverging from those of even small-scale white farmers who owned their own land; class divisions retrenched along racial lines as cotton production began expanding again. Blackburn’s account sees in this new order a precursor to the systems of racialized inequality that would characterize the first half of the twentieth century:

Towards the end of the [nineteenth] century the South had an essentially capitalist agro-industrial structure whose class positions were allocated by a system of discriminations on the basis of colour, gender and native status.

Roadblocks to radical social transformation were also present in Cuba and Brazil. In the former, the final emancipation law required former slaves to work for their masters for eight years for little pay as “patrocinados.” This regressive holdover gave way to another form of immiseration relatively quickly, as a recession in the sugar industry led planters to prefer wage laborers whom they did not have to support year-round. This and the influx of foreign capital investments in railroads and plantation equipment saw a greater degree of proletarianization among former slaves than in the United States. People of color in Cuba continued to face everyday indignities; the island itself came to fall under the yoke of US imperialism after throwing off that of Spain.

Granted, in Brazil, abolition had “shaken” the nation, setting indebted planters to ruin; the “‘governability’ of the Empire had been compromised.” A reformist Liberal administration swept to power. Things snowballed: in 1889, a military coup deposed the emperor, and a republic was established. But this swift change did not initiate a revolutionary shift. Planters themselves backed the coup, as they saw emancipation as facilitated by the monarchy (notwithstanding the irony that the republic was the ultimate product of abolitionist foment).

By aligning itself with the new government, this reactionary planter-capitalist class prevented abolition from descending into an all-out social revolution — much as certain of their analogs in the United States did, too. They maintained a near monopoly on the land, and many had indeed preemptively emancipated their slaves to maintain their plantation labor force. Still, as in Cuba, they soon found a preference for more flexible wage labor in the form of masses of immigrants. The republic “did not honour the abolitionist struggle, and allowed racial inequality to flourish.” What was left, in the words of nineteenth-century black Brazilian writer João da Cruz e Sousa, was “a tattered and ridiculous liberty.”

An Unfinished Revolution

The Reckoning concludes by laying out, but not resolving, a paradox: abolition was doubtless a world-historic rupture in the global history of labor exploitation — an achievement of such difficulty that it “usually required two, three or four attempts before it prevailed” — but also a truncated success that was quickly dashed in its most radical potential. “Utopian aspirations” were “brought down to earth.”

In the United States, Brazil and Cuba, this was because of the adeptness of the capitalist class at not only preventing a tidal wave of social revolution that some antislavery activists wanted, but also finding ways to maintain their regime of value extraction: “The wider history of slavery and abolition shows the difficulty of slowing or redirecting — let alone controlling — the juggernaut of capitalist accumulation.”

Here it becomes clear how Blackburn’s core political argument — that the Second Slavery was maintained and destroyed only by the deliberate politicking of opposed classes, and was thus contingent upon the success thereof — fits within wider economic determinations. That capitalism could well continue without the specific form of exploitation that was the Second Slavery, that capitalism was not ultimately dependent on slavery, occasioned the intra- and inter-class political contest surrounding slavery’s survival in the capitalist era. Slaveholders had to fight to keep slavery because the capitalist world could get along once it was gone; conversely, abolitionists had to fight to end it because the capitalist world as it then was did indeed draw so much value from it.

That the abolitionists were so successful at all is, of course, a triumph, notwithstanding that we may wish they were even more successful than they were. But this ought to be taken as a call to arms, rather than a reason for resignation — it is not for nothing that one volume in Blackburn’s series on slavery and abolition is entitled An Unfinished Revolution.

Blackburn’s insistence that the ABC societies were uniquely sculpted for decades (up to today) by the legacy of chattel slavery at first glance seems to rhyme with the pessimistic, du jour liberal belief in slavery and racism as something “in our DNA.” But his account draws an important distinction. By identifying the basic mechanics of capitalist accumulation and exploitation as distinct from the racial slavery they once subsumed, he is able to accomplish two tasks. First, to remain cognizant of the different role post–chattel slavery forms of unfree labor have played in capitalism (whether in the indentured servitude of European empire or the convict labor of the United States). Second, Blackburn’s account makes clear that the persisting inequalities and violence in ABC societies appear not as the phenotypes of slavery’s genes, but as the specific ways that capitalism’s continuing dominance magnified the disparities unaddressed in abolition’s immediate aftermath. (Hence his praise of postrevolutionary Cuba’s successes in countering longstanding racial and class inequalities through the “‘structural’ approach to universal social provision.”)

That is, Blackburn’s “unfinished revolution” can be understood not as a revolution against the slave system, as this revolution has finished, but against capitalism itself. The unique insight of the antislavery movement was twofold. Abolitionists made clear the depravity of bondage in the Americas but, in so doing, also helped reveal the unremitting cruelty of an economic system limited only by a need to generate profit.