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Robin Blackburn: Why Gove is wrong about slavery, racism and empire

Robin Blackburn, the Marxist author of many vital books on slavery and capitalism, responds to Michael Gove's defence of capitalism and empire
Issue 2908
Robin Blackburn author on slavery and capitalism and Michael Gove

Marxist Robin Blackburn, author of books on slavery and capitalism (left). Hard right Tory Michael Gove (right)

In his last major speech as an MP and secretary of state, hard right Tory Michael Gove last month chose to defend capitalism and empire. 

He specifically targeted the pro-Palestine movement—and the student protest encampments—falsely accusing them of antisemitism. 

But the speech was also an attack on all those that think slavery and colonialism are marks of shame that Britain should acknowledge and apologise for. 

“The encampments, in their slogans, programmes and demands reflect the prevailing intellectual fashion of decolonisation,” whined Gove. 

“The radical left, the extreme left, rejects the idea that successful states can have prospered because of free markets, enlightenment values, liberal parliamentarianism, property rights and capitalism.” 

Here Robin Blackburn, the Marxist author of many vital books on slavery and capitalism, responds. 

The prospect of defeat is panicking the Tory high command. Rishi Sunak evokes the spectre of “mob rule”, Jeremy Hunt urges a bonfire of workers’ rights, while Michael Gove lectures us on the virtues of capitalism and a deluded vision of rampant antisemitism.

Gove is bowing out of front line politics but still aspires to be the brains of the new Conservatism.

Gove’s bombastic parting shot is lacking in reasoned argument or any attempt to explain the poly-crisis facing Britain’s rulers. Roughly 250 years of complicity with racial slavery have bequeathed a noxious legacy.

Eric Williams’ classic indictment of capitalism and slavery has been a perennial topic of debate ever since its publication in 1944. There is sometimes a risk that scholarly debate becomes locked in a de-bunking/ re-bunking cycle.

But on this topic the debates have led to a more critical understanding of the heavy price paid by the enslaved and colonised peoples for their loss of control over their own fate.

An article by Gavin Wright entitled “Slavery and Anglo‑American Capitalism Revisited,” published in the Economic Historic Review for May 2020 gave a comprehensively negative verdict on this type colonial revisionism.

He wrote, “Historical interpretation over the last 30 years strongly supports the view that distant markets were critical for the emergent technologies of eighteenth century Britain.”

Wright is at Stanford University in California and a leading authority on the topic. The “distant markets” he refers to were heavily involved in slavery.

Gove also claimed in his lecture that progressive thinkers had nothing positive to say about capitalism. This is true of some anti‑capitalists but not all.

Marx and Engels open their Communist Manifesto with a remarkable tribute to the productive forces which capitalism had unleashed.

But of course these authors also espoused a radical critique of capitalism and its many-layered complicity with social oppressions based on gender, race and class.

The early capitalists had difficulty finding the capital to sustain their enterprises and ‘hands’ to staff their factories.

The notorious Atlantic slave traffic purchased 12 million captives on the coast of Africa but less than ten million survived the terrible journey to be sold in the Americas.

These slaves were not cheap but they did enable the planters and merchants to raise output and meet popular demand for such addictive products as sugar, tobacco, cotton and coffee.

The secret of this hyper capitalism was to abandon the caution of traditional landowners who were prevented from offering their precious store of “human capital”—their slaves—as collateral for loans.

The man who ditched this rule was Sir Robert Walpole, Britain’s first prime minister, in 1732 with his Colonial Debt Act.

The planter’s temptation to borrow to the hilt was irresistible, roughly doubling the size of the investment in planting that could be made in a given year.

Britain, as pioneer of this turbo-powered regime, did well out of it, and fostered a wave of steam age technologies with steam-powered mills setting an implacable pace which the coerced toilers in the field had to match.

Some aspects of cultivation could be mechanised but the resulting bottle-necks rewarded the super-exploiters. Capitalism fostered every type of inequality.

The “stately homes”, palaces, built by colonial planters and merchants which dot the English country- side serve as monuments of the over-flowing wealth created by the enslaved and colonised.

Slaveholder capitalism proved to be no less prone to excess and crisis than the rural and artisanal capitalism it replaced.

It had a strong accelerator but no brake. The miseries it inflicted led to repeated explosions of unrest in both colonies and metropolis.

This brings us back to the alarm and foreboding of the neo-imperial bully-boys. Once again, as 200 years ago, the mask of anarchy is slipping.

These false prophets are railing against a society many of whose worst failings they themselves aggravated—austerity and the cost of living crisis. Time for the abolitionists to step forward.

Slaveholder capitalism generated waves of slave resistance and revolt which fed into the radicalisation of anti‑slavery as it came to embrace the astonishing impact of the Haitian Revolution.

Read more by Robin Blackburn 

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