What is slavery? footnote 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.footnote1 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.

In order to understand slavery one must begin by making the critical analytic distinction between the relation of slavery, on the one hand, and, on the other, the systemic articulation of the institution. In social science jargon, the microsociological process must be distinguished from the macrosociological dynamic of the institution. It is quite legitimate to study the institution on either level. The main value of the first level of analysis is to define the nature of the institution, to differentiate it from closely related forms of bondage such as serfdom and helotage, to specify its forms, to understand the ways in which the elementary process is represented legally, culturally and ideologically, to explore the peculiar psychology of oppression and domination it entails and to clarify the circumstances under which the institution is individually terminated in the process of manumission.

Only after we have settled these issues can we proceed to the next level of analysis: the relation of the institution to the wider social order. Here we explore the manner in which slavery develops as a significant structural force. It is at this level that we ask questions such as the following: Does slavery ever become determinative in a given social order? What do we mean when we say that slavery is determinative, or that a society is based on it? How, specifically, does slavery influence the economy? How does it influence the superstructure. In what ways is it formative or reinforcive?

The second set of problems are by far the more interesting. But we neglect the first at our peril. Much of the confusion in current Marxian scholarship on the slave mode of production and the seeming incapacity to settle the problem of whether the slave systems of the Americas were capitalistic or pre-capitalist springs from the almost contemptuous disregard for the preliminary microsociological work of definition and specification of the elementary social process we call slavery.


Slavery is what Marx called a ‘relation of domination’. From the viewpoint of the slave it is, first, a condition of powerlessness in relation to another person. In the final analysis it may be true that all forms of powerlessness amount to the same thing, but the origins and character of a particular form of powerlessness can differ in significant ways from others. How, then, is the powerlessness of the slave distinctive?

The necessity for continuous, naked violence is a feature of the powerlessness of the slave. In a marvellous passage in the Grundrisse where the attitudes of former masters and slaves in post-emancipation Jamaica are discussed, Marx not only shows clearly that he understands that slavery, on the institutional level, is first and foremost a ‘relation of domination’, but identifies the element of direct force which distinguishes it. Commenting on the fact that the Jamaican ex-slaves refused to work beyond what was necessary for their own consumption, he notes: ‘They have ceased to be slaves, but not in order to become wage labourers, but, instead, self-sustaining peasants working for their own consumption. As far as they are concerned, capital does not exist as capital, because autonomous wealth as such can exist only either on the basis of direct forced labour, slavery, or indirect forced labour, wage labour. Wealth confronts direct forced labour not as capital, but rather as relation of domination . . .’.footnote2