MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Terms



Slave Society

A society where the fundamental class conflict is based on the division of people into masters and slaves, with slaves being the dominant producing class, and ownership over this complete commodification of the human being controlled by masters.

Historical Development: Slavery has been practiced throughout the world at various times, but only in exceptional circumstances have there been attempts to create actual "slave societies"; notably in the Americas (1492 - 1865) or during the Roman Empire (150 BCE ˜ 350 CE).

The first known example of slavery comes from Athens in around 600 BCE, after Solon had abolished the holding of citizens in bondage (in 594 BCE). When fellow citizens could no longer be used for indebted labour, foriegners became a more "perfect" solution -- laws governing their treatment were not applicable. Slaves were thus captured primarily through a slave trade that stole people from distant tribal societies, and also were aquired through prisoners of war. At the height of Athens slavery, around one third of the population were slaves.

The Roman Empire attempted to create a slave society for over 500 years. Rome had been a large semi-feudal empire with many peasant/farmers whose skills were needed to plant crops, and whose loyalty to the Empire was necessary for waging war as soldiers. The process of expansion was based on a simple formula: peasants became soldiers who captured enemies to enslave for the purpose of replacing the labour lost on the farm to the war. Generations later, the first peasants would become part of a master class, the loyalty of slaves captured generations previous would suffice as soldiers, and the process would repeat itself. In this way, for centuries Rome was able to maintain a slave population of one third across its empire, but this became more and more difficult under the stresses of continual expansion and fighting proxy wars. Many heroic slave revolts eventually helped bring an end to Roman despotism.

With the fall of the Roman empire fell also the notion of a slave society for centuries to come. Regardless, a few parts of the Ottoman Empire found it useful to establish a limited slave trade, at it's peak slaves numbered to about one fifth the population of Istanbul. In Sudan, from around 1200 to 1900, one to two thirds the population in some areas were slaves. In Ghana, between 1076 and 1600, about a third of the population were slaves. A small slave society existed in the Crimean Khanate, from around 1475 to 1783, with the Tatars raiding their neighbors, using the captives for the slave trade. As a result, around 75 percent of the Crimean population were slaves or engaged in the slave trade. In 1783, Russian Empress Catherine the Great ruthlessly crushed the Crimean Khanate, and incorporated its lands and peoples into the Russian Empire.

The slave societies in the Americas were the most thorough going and repressive in history. While the Middle American Incans, Mayans, Aztecs, and others practiced slavery to certain limited extents, the arrival of white Europeans brought with it a combination of mass genocide, terror, and slavery on a scale humanity has not seen since. In the United States of America, the first slaves were captured in Africa and carried over the Atlantic in the most barbarous conditions in 1619. Only half of the people imprisoned in slave ships survived the journey. The slave population of the American South varied form one third to two thirds of the total population until the end of legalized slavery came in the US Civil War, in 1865. Meanwhile, in the 1700s, Jamaica, Antigua, and Grenada were over 90 per cent slaves, while the more industrialised island of Cuba enslaved a comparatively modest one third of its population [the native populations of these islands were thus nearly completely exterminated in mass genocide by Europeans]. In Brazil, over half the population were slaves primarily working on coffee plantations in around 1800.

Early Marxist Theory: According to Marx & Engels, Slave society was the earliest form of class society. As a result of basing their understanding on the only knowledge of ancient history that Europeans had at the time (on Rome, Greece, and Egypt), Marx and Engels thought that slave society came about when the tribal constitution was undermined by the presence of foreigners within the tribal community but outside the kinship system on which the tribal constitution rested, and further, when the productivity of labour was such that it was possible to put the foreigners to work as slaves:

“The increase of production in all branches – cattle-raising, agriculture, domestic handicrafts – gave human labour-power the capacity to produce a larger product than was necessary for its maintenance. ... prisoners of war were turned into slaves. With its increase of the productivity of labour, and therefore of wealth, and its extension of the field of production, the first great social division of labour was bound, in the general historical conditions prevailing, to bring slavery in its train. From the first great social division of labour arose the first great cleavage of society into two classes: masters and slaves, exploiters and exploited.”

[Engels, Origin of the Family, Chapter 9]

Marx and Engels went onto explain that as the Roman Empire grew and extended its rule across wider and wider stretches of the ancient world, the business of plundering, exacting tribute and supervising slave labour became not only exhausting, but extremely inefficient as a mode of production, and universally hated. From being the throbbing heart of an Empire, Rome gradually declined to the status of being just another provincial city.

“Slavery no longer paid; it was for that reason it died out. But in dying it left behind its poisoned sting-the stigma attaching to the productive labour of freemen. This was the blind alley from which the Roman world had no way out: slavery was economically impossible, the labour of freemen was morally ostracised. The one could be the basic form of social production no longer; the other, not yet. Nothing could help here except a complete revolution. ... oppression by Roman officials and great landlords had become so heavy that many “Romans” fled into districts already occupied by the barbarians, and that the Roman citizens settled there feared nothing so much as a return to Roman rule.”

[Engels, Origin of the Family, Chapter 8]

Slave society had produced no class capable of overthrowing it, of making a social revolution; atomised and reduced to the level of draught animals, the slaves were incapable of meaningful rebellion or escape, let alone of seizing power. In the end Rome was rescued from itself from outside, by the tribal people of Central Europe:

“Only barbarians are able to rejuvenate a world in the throes of collapsing civilisation.”

Modern Marxist Theory: From the scattered ruins of Roman civilisation, local tribal peoples gradually fashioned a new system of life which did not aim to reduce any person to the status of slave and which incorporated into Roman law significant components of the old tribal constitution. Slave society made its appearance in many parts of the world at different times, and like the Roman Empire, other slave societies also drove themselves into a dead end.

This leads us to the necessity of critiquing early Marxists' historical conceptions. We now know countless examples of societies that had feudalism, sometimes with slaves, but without a slave society: from millennia of Chinese dynasty, to the Harrapan civilization, to Ancient Egypt, to every incarnation of European feudalism, to the Mayan and Incan Empires, to Japan, etc. Even if, in Southern Europe, the main producing class were slaves, these events should be understood as an aberration rather than a necessary historical route. Later European feudalism wasn't based on Rome, Rome was demolished, smashed, it's memory completely forgotten and wiped out for hundreds of years -- the only records kept with the rise of the Golden Age of Islam in the Middle East. Rome didn't have a great Feudal empire -- England, France, and Russia did, but without slave societies in thier past. While a strong case can be made to say that American capitalism in the south was based on slavery, or that parts of the Americans were turned into slave societies, this certainly did not occur between the transition from tribal to feudal society.

Thus, it is important to make clear that early Marxists had mistaken conceptions due to poor data. It had been a common misconception, for example, even in the 20th century, that ancient Egypt was a massive slave society. The decoding of hieroglyphics with the Rosetta stone, combined with thorough archaeological developments, have shown the while there was slavery in Egypt, it was by no means the essential sector of the producing society. Thus, it is more accurate to describe the general evolution of human history as passing from tribal to feudal to capitalist society. While history is certainly not that simplistic, and there is a lot of uneven and blurred development, when looking at the essence of the productive system, slaves are not unique, nor is slave society common.