Sometimes I came across a very well writen text on Reddit. Mainly on r/askshitorian, for sure. This time, I was reading an essay about the “Capitalism and Slavery” book.
The text is a detailed analysis of Eric Williams' thesis presented in his. Williams' thesis suggests that the development of modern capitalism in the West was heavily dependent on transatlantic slavery, aiding in capital accumulation that spurred the Industrial Revolution. Williams also argues that the abolition of slavery in the British Empire was motivated more by economic reasons than humanitarian ones.
Although the book has been influential, the text emphasizes that the relationship between capitalism and slavery is complex and not fully outlined by Williams. The author of the text critiques the view that slavery and capitalism are incompatible systems, indicating that slavery played a significant role in the development of capitalism. Additionally, it is argued that the economy of slavery was not in terminal decline before abolition, countering one of Williams' claims.
The text also acknowledges the historical importance of Williams as a political and intellectual figure in the British Caribbean, suggesting that his work should be read with an understanding of its historical context and followed by more recent studies for a fuller understanding of slavery and its economic impact.
I don't have the necessary knowledge to reply this kind of essay, so, I resproduce below (and now you can read and thunk about it).
On “Capitalism and Slavery” from Eric Williams
The short, and profoundly unhelpful answer, is that it depends entirely on who you ask and what you mean by “hold up”, and for what reasons you're interested in Williams' ideas. The ideas presented in Capitalism and Slavery are today referred to simply as 'the Williams thesis' by scholars of transatlantic slavery and the British Empire, and they have been debated non-stop pretty much since the moment Williams first published the book, and there has been a resurgence in interest around the Williams thesis among new scholars in the last few years. Part of the problem in assessing Williams' legacy is that many scholars misunderstand the context in which he himself was setting out his ideas, and miss the fundamental point that he set out to make at a time when the modern historical professional was still in its relative infancy.
At its most basic, the Williams thesis set out in Capitalism and Slavery essentially argues that the development of modern capitalism in Western Europe and the United States was dependent upon the experience of transatlantic slavery. Williams makes the argument that slavery was a system that allowed British elites to create vast sums of wealth that were simply not possible prior to the colonisation of the New World, whilst also creating the foundations for an infrastructural network that would transform the scope, speed and efficiency of both interregional and international trade. In the Williams model of the development of modern capitalism, the vast profits from the slave trade in the Americas created the capital necessary to invest in new technologies and means of production at home in Britain, spurring on the industrial revolution and making possible the development of the modern capitalist economy.
Williams never really comes to a concrete conclusion about the full nature of the relationship between slavery and capitalism – sometimes he describes slavery as capitalistic and at other times his ideas clearly argue it is wholly distinct from capitalism – but in essence, he sees the transatlantic slave trade as a proto-capitalistic phenomenon, with some elements of capitalism already present in slavery and others yet to emerge. But he also argues that we cannot look at the colonial system as it existed in the period of transatlantic slavery as truly capitalistic because it depended upon the heavy warping of market forces to sustain itself. For Williams this was demonstrated best by the explosion in trade and commerce that ultimately followed American independence after an initial period of adjustment, and he holds that this was not lost on contemporaries in Britain when they were considering what to do with Caribbean colonies who (in his mind) were increasingly struggling to compete with the United States. In particular, he cites anger from British industrialists and merchants that the industrial revolution and Britain's Imperial project abroad had led to an explosion in competitive markets to sell goods to abroad, but public policy protecting the monopolies of Caribbean planters impinged their ability to cut the costs of production or seek out alternative sources of raw material.
But in making this case, Williams was not necessarily trying to focus too much on identifying at what point slavery gave way to modern capitalism. Rather, Capitalism and Slavery is better understood as a refutation of a popular narrative – one which we still see in our schools today in the UK – that the British nation abolished slavery for entirely moral reasons, driven by the demands of a British public who were horrified to start learning of the brutality of the slave trade and conditions in the Caribbean. Eric Williams was trying to make the point that rather than public pressure, moral outrage or the evolving political sentiments among the elite in Britain as a result of ideas about freedom and democracy, the abolition of slavery was only made possible by the cold, methodical calculation that it had become a net drain on the British economy. In essence, the same capitalists who decades earlier had been turning to slave owners to find investors in their grand projects and schemes were now looking on those investors with contempt for their protected, privileged position. Williams argues that the Caribbean in this period was in terminal economic decline, unable to compete with a much more modern and also industrialising United States economy as well as new competitors in India and other British colonies, and that the profits of industry were now so self-sustaining and secure the capital of the Caribbean plantocracy was largely going to waste.
So there are really two very closely linked but subtly and meaningfully distinct ideas being explored Capitalism and Slavery. One is about the relationship between slavery and capitalism as systems; it would be uncharitable to say that Williams deals with this subject primarily by accident, because he was a man well versed in these kind of theoretical and political issues But it is not fundamentally why he was writing the book. He does come to the conclusion that the wealth created by slavery was an essential ingredient in the development of the modern capitalist economy but he never really gets into the ins and outs of any kind of higher theory of what that relationship looks like precisely, and he didn't set out to. Capitalism and Slavery has been imagined by some to have made a kind of Marxist critique of modern capitalism, but although he was influenced by some Marxist ideas via the likes of his alternating political ally-and-rival C L R James, Williams was fundamentally pragmatist who had little time for ideological frameworks or being restricted to a single way of understanding the past. The second theme – and the idea that Williams was really trying to press – is the notion that slavery had become economically unsustainable by the 19th century, and that this made inevitable its destruction at the hands of industrialists and their advocates once the economic decline of the region became apparent. Williams was above all setting out to disprove the idea that the abolition of slavery could have been motivated by anything other than the calculated, economic concerns of the capitalist elite, although he does take care to stress that he is describing broad patterns rather than ruling out altruism on the part of every individual or group.
The question of how the Williams thesis holds up then depends partly on how you want to use his work and his ideas to better understand slavery. There have really been two interwoven debates raging around the ideas that Williams advanced since the 1940s: one about the nature of the relationship between slavery and capitalism, and one about the nature of the economy in the British Caribbean. The former is larger and more well known because it's an area of work of profound interest to a whole new generation of scholars and one that has seen quite a lot of movement in the last few years, whilst the latter is a smaller, quieter debate which is concerned more with the practicalities of Capitalism and Slavery as an economic study of conditions in the region up until abolition in the 19th century and to what extent Williams' ideas about humanitarian vs economic concern stand up to scrutiny. The former is usually what we mean these days when we talk about the debate around 'the Williams thesis', even though I'd argue it's fairer to Williams himself to use that title for the second debate that he was more intentionally contributing to.
To make matters even more complicated, it is probably fairest to say that on both debates scholars have come to the conclusion that Williams was both right and wrong in his analysis depending – again – on what aspects you want to focus on and what you think the most important parts of 'the story' are.
In Caribbean studies there is now broad agreement that although Capitalism and Slavery does correctly identify some very real structural concerns for the long-term economic health of the British Caribbean in the run-up to the abolition of slavery, he was off the mark in assuming this meant that the institution of slavery was in terminal decline or would inevitably crash the economy of the Empire without intervention. The evidence we now have instead points broadly to a regional elite who were slow to adapt to changing economic circumstances but who were nonetheless adapting, and beginning to re-energise the institution of slavery in the Caribbean just as abolition was imposed on the colonial elite. It has also been shown that Britain's anti-slavery commitments were not pursued without cost, and the abolition of the slave trade in particular has been identified as shaving a not insignificant sum from national income in Britain over several decades, whilst abolition was only made possible by the imperial government being willing to pay £20million (the equivalent to around £80billion in wealth today) to cover the cost of wealth lost by former slave owners. We also have a very rich abundance of research on the United States now that affirms the institution of slavery was most certainly not unprofitable or in decline there, and that on the contrary it was thriving and continuing to grow on the eve of the Civil War.
The debate around the relationship between capitalism and slavery is less clean cut (it's also one I quite frankly have very little time for and which I think is characterised mostly by people who agree with each other arguing over semantics, but that's another story) partly because Williams never tried to articulate a single, coherent theory himself, as much as illustrate the direction he believed the economic evidence was pointing in. But fundamentally scholars have rejected the notion his thesis largely embodies that slavery and capitalism were or are incompatible systems, whilst affirming that slavery had a significant role to play in the development of modern capitalism. There is broad agreement that the transatlantic slave trade itself represented an authentic kind of capitalist enterprise and that it cannot be conceived as a kind of pre-capitalist stage, even if it does not entirely resemble the capitalist economy we are familiar with in the 21st century. This, combined with the insight that slavery was not in any way economically backwards in the 19th century and that the economic problems of the British Caribbean defy such simple characterisation, seriously undermines the notion that capitalism evolved neatly from slavery and then dismantled this archaic way of organising labour when it became an inconvenient burden.
So in some quite fundamental ways Capitalism and Slavery has been refuted and you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who says they subscribe fully to the Williams thesis. But there are other ways in which Williams' work continues to stand up to scrutiny and hold significance for how we study the British Caribbean and transatlantic slavery as an institution. There are nuances and contours to the book that are often lost when we discuss it today, and it's important to recognise the monumental contribution it made to our understanding of slavery. There are books like Ed Baptist's The Half Never Told, a deeply flawed and sharply criticised (but publicly lauded) piece of work that stretches its evidence to breaking point in an attempt to prove its point, that have essentially tried to revisit the Williams thesis without properly situating their own ideas alongside or in contrast to his. Williams' work anticipated many later developments in slavery and Caribbean studies. He identifies early in the book for example that it is not slavery strictly speaking but rather coercive labour that was essential to the development of the colonial system and modern capitalism, and traces how the earlier experience of using white indentured labour helped create the necessary infrastructural, social and ideological frameworks for slavery, whilst still correctly identifying the characteristics that mark slavery apart from indenture. Williams has also been indirectly vindicated in an emerging consensus that, in the long-run, slavery is a net negative for economic growth and development compared to an economy based on 'free' labour – simply not to the point of the inevitability of its abolition (given that it persists today, just illegally).
And whilst the relationship between slavery and capitalism that Williams appears to describe might have been largely refuted, his appreciation of some of its complexities if something that I – as a historian who is very critical of the slavery and capitalism debate as a whole – find useful. There has been a great drive in slavery studies in the last decade or so to try and 'prove' that slavery and capitalism might as well be synonyms; that one cannot have possibly existed without the other. As I have argued here before, I do not think that is something that has ever been satisfactorily demonstrated, and fear that we sometimes confuse the alignment of events and characters in the historical record with almost Whig-like stories of inevitable progression. I don't think we can say transatlantic slavery was separate and distinct from the capitalist system we see in the world today, no, but nor do I think we can neatly say that capitalism was only made possible because of transatlantic slavery and thus slavery is the foundation of all 21st century wealth and prosperity. Rather, I would argue that we are better served looking at the various ways in which the plantation economy and the institutions that grew up around slavery helped to create economic and political modernity – that is to say, how they explain the particular shape and form capitalism takes, rather than the existence of capitalism or anything intrinsic about capitalism itself. Williams has moments where he tentatively touches on a similar analysis of capitalist economy (at least in my view), and although his conclusions about slavery's economic viability are wrong, his insights into the functioning of capitalist economy are useful. Readers concerned about the impending danger of climate change will find some of the ideas explored in Slavery and Capitalism's chapters very familiar and fascinating indeed, for better or worse.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that Slavery and Capitalism is worth reading as an historical document in and of itself if this is a part of the world you have passion for. Eric Williams is one of the most remarkable figures in the history of the British Caribbean. He went on to found the People's National Movement, one of the most successful political parties anywhere in the western democratic world, and his beliefs – difficult though they are to neatly pin down in the left/right framework we usually function in when thinking about political parties and leaders – have informed the political economy of the British Caribbean for decades. It is almost impossible to understand the political forces at work in this region without trying to understand the complicated, enigmatic figure that was Eric Williams, and there is no better insight into his complicated view of the world than Slavery and Capitalism. This is a book that in places could be forgiven for sounding like it comes from the mouth of Karl Marx and in others contains stinging rejections of mainstays of 20th century western Marxist political theory, and helps give an ideological grounding to a very Caribbean form of radical centrism that dominated the politics of Trinidad and Tobago for 30 years.
So on balance yes, I would say it is still well worth reading (and it is an enjoyable read – Eric Williams was a very gifted writer). But it should be read with an appreciation for what the author was setting out to do, in what context he was doing it, and followed up by more recent works of scholarship so you can pick apart for yourself the ways in which the study of slavery has moved on but still owes a debt to the work that Williams did all those years ago in trying to illuminate the economic dynamics of transatlantic slavery and complicating the narrative of its abolition.