Review: American Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights

Philosophy pb DEMYAmerican Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights. By Robin Blackburn (London: Verso, 2011. Pp. 512)

Blackburn’s American Crucible contains a thorough review of Atlantic historical scholarship with an emphasis on Atlantic Revolutions, slavery and abolitionist thought. He revisits Eric Williams’s famous thesis on the role of modern slavery as key to the development of industrial revolution spearheaded by the British. Blackburn concludes that while slavery was key to the relative political dominance of Britain, the expansion of industrial capitalism could have happened without the system of slavery. Blackburn adds that the capacity to extend credit made the plantation colonies an important asset to the metropolis. He thus takes Williams’s thesis as a point of departure but adds emphasis on the role of Atlantic slave colonies as a kind of safety valve for empire (e.g., their credit helps Britain weather a economic downturn, etc.). Blackburn writes, “Without the plantations and without industrial advance Britain might very well have been relegated to the second rank” (101).

As with his previous works, Blackburn highlights the double-sided character of Enlightenment thought in relation to antislavery and abolitionist politics. The Haitian Revolution plays a central role in his narrative and helps Blackburn tease out the diverging political thought of the late eighteenth century. For Blackburn, as well as others like Laurent Dubois and David Geggus, the Haitian Revolution was a historical juncture that illuminated the limitations of contemporary, social and political imagination; reaction against the abolition of slavery in Saint Domingue and the later independence of Haiti were telling. Blackburn is in agreement with Robert Brenner, in that he too finds the relationship of wage labor at the center of the expansion of industrial capitalism (not markets). Blackburn characterizes the slave labor relations in plantations as part of an “asymetrical complementarity,” i.e., as part of “a primitive hybrid capitalism in both metropolis and colonies [that] created the conditions for the later breakthrough to industrial capitalism.” Slave plantations were “hybrid and transitional,” while they were based on a ‘natural economy’ they also featured characteristics of a future industrial order, Blackburn notes that this is due to their role within the larger context of global capitalist expansion. In other words, these agricultural enterprises dependent on slave labor were compelled to produce in order to feed the growth of industrial development, i.e., they were subject to a production logic that demanded organization and time-saving/organizing techniques borne out of industrial social relations (113).

The least convincing part of Blackburn’s argument is the notion of “human rights” (in the modern sense) as a framework through which to understand both revolutionary and abolitionist legacies. His quasi-embrace of CLR James was strange, as he then distanced himself from the problem of class struggle as the center of James’s book (202-203). Although the section on the Haitian Revolution is valuable, Blackburn was being pulled in all directions by the established scholarship (Carolyn Fick and John Thornton are saying something quite different from James certainly, but also from Geggus). While remaining diplomatic is smart, this key section lacked strength in argument — he is simply too willing to say that all of the scholarship on the Haitian Revolution is right, in its own way, but this dilutes his argument. Maybe raising more points of contrast here would have been helpful in making his contribution explicit.

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