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New Left Review I/117, September-October 1979


H. Orlando Patterson

Slavery in Human History

What is slavery? [*] I would like to acknowledge help and criticism from Robin Blackburn and Peter Garnsey in preparing this article. O.P. How do we identify a slave formation or society? What do we mean when we say that a given society was based on slavery? Is there such a thing as a Slave Mode of Production? It is remarkable that after nearly a century and a half of modern scholarship on the subject these are still unanswered questions. At no time, however, were answers more urgently needed than now. Slave studies has become something of an academic industry. The industry encompasses a vast and growing body of works from Marxist and bourgeois scholars alike, and on the ancient, medieval and modern periods of every continent. [1] For a review of the literature, see O. Patterson, ‘The Study of Slavery’, Annual Review of Sociology, 3, 1977, pp. 407–49. Yet, with a few notable exceptions, few scholars are concerned with both the theoretical and empirical aspects of the problem. An unhealthy specialization has therefore developed in current slave studies. On one side stands a legion of empiricists who pursue every conceivable detail of slave culture and economy, often in a theoretical wasteland; on the other side is a small but growing band of theorists who insist on defining the ‘crucial issues’ and weave theories which, by their own admission, bear no relation whatever to reality.

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