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Dauvé versus Marx |


Dauvé’s central argument is expressed as follows:

Giving primacy to slavery and woman’s subordination is not documented by facts. Slavery played an indispensable role in the rise of capitalism from the 16th to the 18th centuries, but its importance began to decline with large scale industrialisation and England, the industrial revolution leader, was one of the prominent abolitionist countries, first of the slave trade, then of slavery itself. Various forms of slavery exist in the 21st century, yet they have long ceased to be vital to the capitalist economy.

Immediately, Dauvé comes into conflict with both facts and Marx. This essay is not a review of Federici or a litigation of Dauvé vs. Federici, but uses Dauvé’s statements here and elsewhere to hold him up to the standards of ‘facts’ and ‘Marx’ he deploys in the review.

We’ll take Marx first, since it’s the shorter of the two to deal with.

In general, when someone invokes ‘Marx’ as an authority, it’s important to ask the following questions:

  • Did Marx actually say the thing being claimed? And does it make sense in context?
  • Did Marx change or clarify his position in other works?
  • Was Marx correct?
  • What are the implications of this for the present?

Marx discussed classical slavery as a pre-feudal class system, and he mentioned New World slavery as essential to the world market, but did not treat either subject in-depth. However, despite this fragmentary and incomplete account, scattered across decades of work, there is nevertheless the basis of an understanding of the centrality of slavery to 19th century capitalism, not just the 17th and 18th:
In Capital

Whilst the cotton industry introduced child-slavery in England, it gave in the United States a stimulus to the transformation of the earlier, more or less patriarchal slavery, into a system of commercial exploitation. In fact, the veiled slavery of the wage workers in Europe needed, for its pedestal, slavery pure and simple in the new world.

(emphasis added)

And in The Poverty of Philosophy, 20 years earlier

Direct slavery is just as much the pivot of bourgeois industry as machinery, credits, etc. Without slavery you have no cotton; without cotton you have no modern industry. It is slavery that gave the colonies their value; it is the colonies that created world trade, and it is world trade that is the precondition of large-scale industry. Thus slavery is an economic category of the greatest importance.

In these two fragments there are two very important assertions, which we will investigate further:
That the cotton industry in England resulted in the transformation of slavery in the US south from a ‘patriarchal’ to ‘commercial’ system.

That slavery was essential to the cotton industry and that mechanisation could not have proceeded without it.

Marx in Capital focused in on an ‘ideal’ abstracted capitalism for his central theoretical exposition of the categories of capital, wage labour, use value, exchange value, and surplus value. Capital as a critique of political economy was to show how even formally free wage labour was still exploited, that surplus value was the source of profit and that the ‘freedom’ of proletarians was illusory. However, while slavery may have been excluded from the pared down analysis, it was not excluded from Marx’s understanding of capitalism as a historical world system, if under-emphasised and under-theorised.

Marx was also extremely clear later in life that his exposition in Capital, and what has subsequently been canonised as ‘Historical Materialism’ with the transition from feudalism to capitalism to communism, applied only to the countries of Western Europe, and should not be used as a blueprint for the course of capitalist development (or transition to communism) elsewhere. Unfortunately Marx’s warnings to this effect were mostly contained in letters
, such as the one he wrote to the editors of the Russian magazine Otecestvenniye Zapisky in 1887.

We quote this at length, because Marx could equally be talking about Dauvé’s extremely circumscribed notion of primitive accumulation in the review:

The chapter on primitive accumulation does not pretend to do more than trace the path by which, in Western Europe, the capitalist order of economy emerged from the womb of the feudal order of economy. It therefore describes the historic movement which by divorcing the producers from their means of production converts them into wage earners (proletarians in the modern sense of the word) while it converts into capitalists those who hold the means of production in possession. In that history, “all revolutions are epoch-making which serve as levers for the advancement of the capitalist class in course of formation; above all those which, after stripping great masses of men of their traditional means of production and subsistence, suddenly fling them on to the labour market. But the basis of this whole development is the expropriation of the cultivators.

“This has not yet been radically accomplished except in England….but all the countries of Western Europe are going through the same movement,” etc. (Capital,French Edition, 1879, p. 315).

He feels himself obliged to metamorphose my historical sketch of the genesis of capitalism in Western Europe into an historico-philosophic theory of the marche generale [general path] imposed by fate upon every people, whatever the historic circumstances in which it finds itself, in order that it may ultimately arrive at the form of economy which will ensure, together with the greatest expansion of the productive powers of social labour, the most complete development of man. But I beg his pardon. (He is both honouring and shaming me too much.)

By locating slavery in the 16th and 17th centuries as ‘indispensable’ and tying industrialisation, especially in England, to slavery’s abolition, Dauvé suggests a periodisation of capitalism where slavery, and the violence of primitive accumulation, is displaced by the factory system into free proletarian labour. We have already shown that Marx did not hold this position – he believed that capitalism had completely displaced slavery and serfdom in Europe while slavery in the rest of the world was essential to capitalism.


Having consulted Marx, we can now compare Dauvés facts to the still developing historical record of slavery.
Dauvé gives the example of the Indian cotton industry being replaced by textile factories in the North of England:

In the 17th century, labour costs in Indian cotton mills were estimated at 1/7th of what they were in Europe. [..] Later, in the mid-19th century, half of the cotton goods produced in the world were manufactured in the north of England [..] Meanwhile, “the bones of the cotton-weavers [were] bleaching the plains of India”.

What had happened in two centuries? How did the English bourgeois manage to shift the balance of power? Bluntly put, by lowering the cost of labour in their own country, by manufacturing the same articles much cheaper. Even on military grounds, European superiority only became effective in the 19th century because the West was benefiting from better soldiery and weaponry due to the industrial revolution and modern wage-labour. The destructive capability of the machine gun paralleled that of the power-loom. History is not mono-causal, but the driving force of the ascent of a few countries was their ability to put millions into productive work.

It is undoubtedly true that the power loom, invented in 1785 and with 250,000 in use just in England by 1850, displaced craft production of textiles, leading to rapid urbanisation of the UK and the destruction of the Indian textile industry. However this is only a partial story that obscures two central trends.

– child labour in a North Carolina cotton mill, 1908

While cotton can be spun on a hand loom or a machine loom, it can only be grown in a field, and it can’t be grown in the British Isles. British textile importers didn’t simply switch from finished Indian textiles to raw Indian cotton, instead, the cotton came from the US south
. This was partly due to American cotton’s better suitability for machining, and partly due to the low cost of American slave labour:

Whitney [inventor of the cotton gin] is given credit for unleashing the explosion of American cotton production which was, in turn, propelled by the seemingly insatiable appetite for cotton from the British cotton textile mills.
American cotton production soared from 156,000 bales in 1800 to more than 4,000,000 bales in 1860
The cotton boom, however, was the main cause of the increased demand for slaves – the number of slaves in America grew from 700,000 in 1790 to 4,000,000 in 1860.

The demand for cotton was not only limited to the US, it also increased demand for slavery in Brazil, Cedric Robinson in Black Marxism writes:

A second cause for the increase of slaves in early nineteenth-century Brazil was the rapid growth of the region’s economy during this period. In this respect, Brazil was responding to political, economic, and financial forces in the world market. At its base, the spurt in the Brazilian economy was a consequence of the market demand for sugar and cotton: “[T]he American Revolutionary Wars, the French Revolutionary Wars, the Napoleonic Wars and, not least, the bloody uprising in the Caribbean sugar island of St. Domingue had crippled many of Brazil’s economic rivals and raised world prices for tropical produce.
Eric Williams reported: “It was said that seven-tenths of the goods used by Brazil for slave purchases were British manufactures, and it was whispered that the British were reluctant to destroy the barracoons on the coast because they would thereby destroy British Calicoes. In 1845, Peel refused to deny the fact that British subjects were engaged in the slave trade.

England outlawed the slave trade in 1807. However as we have seen above, this did not reduce the number of slaves in the United States. Apart from the continued operation of Spanish and Portuguese slave ships, and Britain’s continued role in building and fitting slave ships beyond 1807, the United States was able to increase its slave population from 700,000 to 4,000,000 between 1790 and 1860. The expansion of slavery also happened in tandem with the geographical expansion of slave-owning states during these decades, as the United States expanded westwards via Native American genocide from the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, to the Second Seminole War, to the 1838 Trail of Tears.

So rather than European technological development simply displacing craft labour and slavery via increased productivity, we can see that American slavery expanded rapidly during this period as a direct consequence of the industrial revolution. Or to put it differently, if 19th century industrialisation was the beginning of the end of slavery, it was only so in the sense that detonation is the beginning of the end of a bomb.


If technological development and displacement by wage labour does not explain abolition, then what does?
In 1793, slaves in Haiti began a thirteen year insurrection ending with the independence of the Caribbean’s richest colony from France, following the defeat of over 100,000 French troops. As CLR James meticulously documented in Black Jacobins, the British sent 20,000 troops of their own (thousands of whom were to die of yellow fever) attempting to capture the colony and restore slavery over a period of several years, finally withdrawing in defeat in 1798. The example of Haiti led to paranoia amongst the planter class
, and inspired real uprising among slaves, across the Caribbean and United States
, and Britain’s abolition of the slave trade can be seen as a response both to the continued threat of slave insurrection, and its geopolitical interests against other colonial powers, which in 1807 were significant purchasers of slaves from British slavers.

Later, with the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1834, this also followed major insurrections in the Caribbean. In 1823 there had been a rebellion of 10,000 slaves in Demerera (modern Guyana). In 1831/2 up to 60,000 slaves revolted in Jamaica in the Baptist Rebellion. Notably, Britain’s Caribbean colonies were mainly involved in the production of sugar, not cotton, leaving the textile industry unaffected.

Where technology did displace sugar cane specifically, it was not mechanisation but the development of sugar beet – beet could be grown in Europe and North America by waged agricultural workers. The widespread cultivation of sugar beet was itself propelled by the Haitian revolution, when the flow of sugar cane to Europe was almost entirely suppressed, leading Napoleon to invest in the development of commercial sugar beet farming.
. Cedric Robinson has mentioned that at the turn of the 19th century, Britain’s main Caribbean sugar plantation, Jamaica, was suffering from soil depletion due to intensive cultivation, leading to a shift of focus from Jamaica, to Barbados and Guyana.

We can therefore look at British abolition in the Caribbean as restricted to a specific use of slavery (for sugar cane production) which was not essential to Britain’s economy by the mid-1830s and which was suffering from major uprisings in close geographical proximity to Haiti. Britain’s economic reliance of slavery was still increasing during this time due to the cotton industry, just at a level removed via the US and Brazil.

We should also remember that the Emancipation Act of 1834 did not actually abolish slavery across the Empire, but only in the Caribbean.

Abolition in the Caribbean was did not immediately to freedom for the majority of slaves either, but to a new system of forced labour under the apprentice system. Planters were compensated the equivalent of £17b
for the loss of their slaves, and then the slaves were required to work for their former owners for several years before actual freedom, for low wages, and still subject to flogging as punishment for work refusal. The threat of further rebellions by newly freed slaves against the apprentice system led to the early collapse of the apprentice system in 1838.

Rather, it has been estimated that around 3.7 million colonial subjects were engaged in various forms of indentured labour via two specific different system of contract labour between the mid 1830s and the early 1920s.

Those two systems do not include all major systems of indentured/forced labour internationally at the time. For example debt peonage in Mexico, the subject of council communist B. Traven’s Jungle Novels series, was only abolished during the Mexican revolution of the early 20th century.

The Civil War

The abolition of slavery in the US was similarly neither an act of benevolence nor economically predestined, but the result of civil war.

While Marx’s geopolitical predictions were often flawed, it is clear from his writings on the Civil War that he did not predict an inevitable victory for the North due to its superior economic system. Not only that, but Marx predicted that a victory for the plantocracy would result, not just in the maintenance of slavery, but it’s expansion northwards

The war of the Southern Confederacy is, therefore, not a war of defence, but a war of conquest, a war of conquest for the spread and perpetuation of slavery.

What would in fact take place would be not a dissolution of the Union, but a reorganisation of it, a reorganisation on the basis of slavery,under the recognised control of the slaveholding oligarchy.[…] The slave system would infect the whole Union. In the Northern states, where Negro slavery is in practice unworkable, the white working class would gradually be forced down to the level of helotry. This would fully accord with the loudly proclaimed principle that only certain races are capable of freedom, and as the actual labour is the lot of the Negro in the South, so in the North it is the lot of the German and the Irishman, or their direct descendants.

The present struggle between the South and North is, therefore, nothing but a struggle between two social systems, the system of slavery and the system of free labour. The struggle has broken out because the two systems can no longer live peacefully side by side on the North American continent. It can only be ended by the victory of one system or the other.

The fugitive slave act of 1850 was one example of the confederacy expanding the system of slavery northwards, a decade before Marx wrote this passage, so it was not without justification. This act made it a crime in the North to assist any fugitive slave on pain of death, allowing a whole industry of slave catching (sometimes kidnapping free black Americans to sell back into slavery, such as Samuel Northrup) to expand northwards.

And when victory came, as with the apprenticeship system in the Caribbean, freedom was to remain elusive for many former slaves.

Following the short years of Reconstruction after the Civil War, forced labour of Black Americans was re-introduced via the rapid expansation of vagrancy laws and the convict leasing system
. Convict leasing was primarily used in extractive industries rather than cotton farming, with cotton production being dominated by sharecropping on former plantations. Sharecropping was not free wage labour by agricultural proletarians, but a semi-feudal system again, where sharecroppers were allowed to use land for a share of the crop, often forced into extreme levels of debt by the landowner. Sharecropping continued until the 1940s. Debt peonage in the post-bellum south, particularly in lumber camps, vegetable farms, turpentine camps, and railroad construction was a further system of forced labour separate from both convict leasing and sharecropping, it continued until the mid-20th century and affected up to a quarter of southern rural workers.


Primitive accumulation (in the sense of the destruction of pre-capitalist modes of production and the dispossession of peasants from land) renewed apace with the ‘Scramble for Africa’ beginning 1881. The Congo Free State, site of notorious atrocities under King Leopold of Belgium is one of the more famous examples of this period. However forced labour of various kinds was introduced in British colonies too, with land appropriations in Kenya’s Rift Valley, hut taxes, livestock culls, pass systems, conscript labour – all to force subsistence farmers and craft labourers into wage labour for settler plantation farmers

In 1939, the Labour Union of East Africa submitted a memorandum to the Government of Uganda on the Report of the Commission of Enquiry into the Labour Situation in the Uganda Protectorate, amongst the items.

3. […] The Committee recommends the formation of a class of workers, entirely dependent on wages. […] All such methods are ultimately founded on the ousting of the victim from the land, and they only effective in so far as they succeed in doing so. The method by which a propertyless working class was created in Britain in the Eighteenth century was by the enclosure of the commons […] All methods of creating a propertyless working class work in the end towards this classical model. There need not be forcible dispossession. The same result can be had by raising taxation, by granting monopolies such as the ginning monopoly, by restricting the natives within reserves, by the failure to control usuary. […] what is the point of pushing thousands of tons of extra sugar, or sisal, or cotton, onto the already flooded market.

In 1942 during the Second World War, conscript labour was put in force in Kenya, directly forcing African labourers to work on settler farms . This was expanded massively in 1953 under the State of Emergency, where hundreds of thousands of Kikuyu were put into labour camps. What is now Jomo Kenyatta International Airport was built by the forced labour in one of those camps.

Workers in the colonies therefore, were well aware that British colonial administrations were consciously trying to create a proletariat via dispossession and forced labour well into the mid-20th Century, a century after abolition.
The point here is not to equate chattel slavery and the various forms of non-free labour which followed it, but to stress the continuity of different violent systems of forced labour across the globe during the period of rapid industrialisation and urbanisation of Europe and well into the 20th century. It is clear that industrialisation, as well as displacing craft workers with factory workers, also stimulated an explosion of chattel slavery and other forms of forced labour in the international plantation and extractive economies, lasting well over a century from the 1807 act.

If we look at capitalism as an international system which has incorporated and expanded forced labour and other systems of brutal racialised state violence internationally, while also relying on bourgeois freedoms at home for some of its development, this allows us to begin to reconcile Dauvé’s conception of fascism as a tendency of capital with Césaire’s conception of fascism as techniques formerly reserved for the colonies applied to Europe. Not just a continuity between liberal democracy and fascism at home, but from the concentration camps during the Boer War in the early 1900s, to post war forced labour in British colonies applied first under Attlee’s Labour in Malaya, then under Churchill in Kenya.

What is the real thrust of fascism, if not the economic and political unification of capital, a ..tendency which has become general since 1914?
Dictatorship is not a weapon of capital (as if capital could replace it with other, less brutal weapons): dictatorship is one of its tendencies, a tendency realised whenever it is deemed necessary

– Dauvé, When Insurrections Die

what he cannot forgive Hitler for is not crime in itself, the crime against man, it is not the humiliation of man as such, it is the crime against the white man, the humiliation of the white man, and the fact that he applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the coolies of India, and the blacks of Africa.

– Cesaire, Discourse on Colonialism


What are the implications of this? Well first of all, if we’re going to claim a materialist conception of history and invoke Marx, it should be based on the actual historical record and be honest about what Marx did or didn’t say about things. Instead of this, Dauvé ignores both, and extrapolates from what Marx said about something else to make claims which are closer to a high school history text book than a serious investigation.
But perhaps we’re being unfair to Dauvé, since he has briefly discussed slavery in other works.
In Human, All Too Human we can see Dauvé pitting the free proletarian against all previous forms of labour:

In fact, even if they died from overwork, the slave, the serf, the peasant under the yoke of the corvée and tax, the artisan and the worker before the industrial revolution, were only ferociously exploited in one part of their existence, a large portion of which remained outside the control of the dominant class. The serf’s vegetable garden wasn’t of interest to the lord. Modern proletarians produce the totality of material life, they lose it, then they receive it back in the form of the commodity and the spectacle, and this takes the form of the global circulation of goods and labour. It’s for this reason that capitalism was theorised a hundred and fifty years ago as the realisation, if not the completion, of a double tendency of the universalisation of humanity and its alienation.

As we have seen, the chattel slave on a cotton plantation or the indebted peon on a lumber camp did not represent a pre-capitalist form of labour which capitalism was to abolish; these workers had in fact already been displaced from the land and integrated into the global system of capitalist production. Even if their own movement was restricted within a few thousand square metres via the enforcement of overseers, early professional police forces, and slave patrols, the commodities they produced were distributed on the world market. What appears superficially as pre-capitalist forms of forced labour were in fact new capitalist forms, reinvented on a mass, international, industrial scale in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Many of the workers forced off the land in the 19th century, while they technically may have been working for wages, were unfree proletarians. Also while it may be true for the peasant, the idea that chattel slaves “were only ferociously exploited in one part of their existence, a large portion of which remained outside the control of the dominant class.” is just categorically wrong.

If we look at Dauvé’s Capitalism and Communism
, then the categories he uses become slightly more fluid:

The slave is a commodity for his owner, who buys a man to work for him, whereas the wage-labourer is his own private proprietor, legally free to choose who to work for, at least in principle and in democratic capitalism.

In this passage, Dauvé introduces the numerous caveats that are absent in his critique of Federici. We would need to exclude from ‘democratic capitalism’ all of the colonies up to and including the 20th Century, America under Jim Crow, South Africa under apartheid, Palestine, and note the major current exceptions to those legally free who are within ‘democratic capitalist’ societies, such as the 3 million prisoners in the US, the millions of undocumented migrants and refugees around the world, such as the 4 million Bengalis recently made stateless in Assam via the NRC, and to some extent legal migrants who are often placed under differing forms of limited visas, such as an inability to leave their employer without being deported. Most of these people are ‘proletarians’, but they are not subject to Marx’s ‘double freedom’ in the proper sense, since they’re not free to sell their labour to any buyer.
. .

Why is this important? Dauvé in Capitalism and Communism writes:

For the dispossessed masses, the capitalist socialisation of the world creates an entirely new reality. Unlike the slaves, serfs, or craftsmen of the past, the wage-labour (often wage-less, as we said) “immense majority” is potentially unified for collective action capable of overthrowing capitalism and creating a cooperative social life. Such is the crux of communist theory.

While Haiti and other slave rebellions have only briefly been touched on here, from the outset of capitalism as a world system there was resistance to it by enslaved Africans in the New World. Maroon communities in Suriname, Jamaica, the Florida Seminoles and others both attempted to recreate a modified version of the African village system, as well as providing refuge for fugitive slaves, and in the case of Granny Nanny in Jamaica regularly mounting raids on plantations

This is a history of resistance to capitalism running up to the mid-19th century which took on a very different character from nascent socialist movements such as the Chartists, but which was mostly written out of the historical record until CLR James and Du Bois emerge in the 1930s

Conversely, while Marx described the transition from serfs and ‘bondsmen’ (indentured servants) to free wage labourers in Western Europe as a precursor to industrial capitalism, he was clear (for example in Chapter 33 of Capital ‘The Modern Theory of Colonisation’) that where capital was to be exported elsewhere, the social relationship and class of wage labourers must be recreated anew. This applies to forced labour in the British Empire following the abolition of slavery, as well as to the Bolshevik militarisation of Labour following the civil war
. So while ‘free’ wage labour of the proletarian may be the dominant form of labour in advanced capitalism, it is a mistake to see forced labour as pre-capitalist – it has been amply and consciously used by capitalists, often the British state itself, to create a proletarian class of wage labourers where capital has been confronted with agrarian subsistence forms of labour which otherwise would have resisted working for wages, and this persisted well beyond the initial primacy of industrial capitalism in Western Europe.

As Dauvé says himself in Capitalism and Communism, the unity of the proletariat (defined as those who have been dispossessed) for collective action exists only in potential. In practice, the working class is divided – between the waged and unwaged, by race, nationality, gender and other systems which act in opposition to unity.

Dauvé’s own definition of the proletariat, one vehemently opposed to all the productivist definitions of the 20th century, is expansive enough to include those ‘unfree proletarians’ which have been the subject of this essay, in fact it could describe the slave in 1790s Haiti
as well much as the call centre worker in Cardiff or the housewife in Kansas.

If one identifies proletarian with factory worker (or with manual labourer), or with the poor, one misses what is subversive in the proletarian condition. The proletariat is the negation of this society. It is not the collection of the poor, but of those who are dispossessed, “without reserves,” who are nothing, have nothing to lose but their chains, and cannot liberate themselves without destroying the whole social order. The proletariat is the dissolution of present society, because this society deprives the proletarians of nearly all its positive aspects: the proles only get their share of capitalist material, mental, and cultural wealth in its poorest aspects. All theories (bourgeois, fascist, Stalinist, Labourite, left-wing, or far-leftist) which somehow glorify and praise the proletariat as it is and claim for it the positive role of defending values and regenerating society, are anti-revolutionary. Enlightened bourgeois even admit the existence of class struggle, providing it never ends, in a self-perpetuating bargaining game between labour and capital, where the proletariat is reduced to the status of an element of capital, an indispensable wheel within an inevitable mechanism. The bourgeois does not mind the worker as long as he remains a partner.

Defining the proletariat has something but little to do with sociology. Indeed, most proles are low paid, and a lot work in production, yet their existence as proletarians derives not from being low-paid producers, but from being “cut off,” alienated, with no control either over their lives or the outcome and meaning of what they have to do to earn a living. The proletariat therefore includes the unemployed and many housewives, since capitalism hires and fires the former, and utilises the labour of the latter to increase the total mass of extracted value. The proletariat is what reproduces value and can do away with a world based on value. Without the possibility of communism, theories of “the proletariat” would be tantamount to metaphysics. Our only vindication is that whenever it autonomously interrupted the running of society, the proletariat has repeatedly acted as negation of the existing order of things, has offered it no positive values or role, and has groped for something else.


In his haste to contradict Federici, Dauvé also contradicts himself, so this could also have been called Dauvé vs. Dauvé:
From Federici vs. Marx:

Whether housework is equally shared (which is rarely the case) or whether the husband takes advantage of his wife, does not change anything in the reproduction of capital. Men certainly “profit” from women, but this has nothing in common with a company profit. Housework does not result in surplus-value, it does not generate a commodity sold on a market.

From Capitalism vs. Communism:

The proletariat therefore includes the unemployed and many housewives, since capitalism hires and fires the former, and utilises the labour of the latter to increase the total mass of extracted value.

Which one is it?

Main image – Juvenile convicts at work in the fields, 1905.

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