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What Slavery Tells Us about Marx

Following W. E. B. Du Bois and Cedric Robinson, Walter Johnson suggests that “the history of (racial) capitalism began with the slave trade rather than the factory system.” When Johnson presented an earlier version of his essay at the “Future of the African American Past” conference at the Smithsonian Institution, he asked, “Of what ethical or analytical use is the term ‘capitalism’ if it cannot describe the world-making commodification and transportation of twelve million Africans to the New World?” Putting the slave trade (as distinct from antebellum slavery) at the center of our historical work can help, in particular, to clarify the ways Marx failed to adequately account for the origins of capitalism, and also illuminates the interpretive consequences of that failure.

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About Boston Review

Walter Johnson, Harvard historian and author of the acclaimed River of Dark Dreams, urges us to embrace a vision of justice attentive to the history of slavery—not through the lens of human rights, but instead through an honest accounting of how slavery was the foundation of capitalism, a legacy that continues to afflict people of color and the poor. Inspired by Cedric J. Robinson’s work on racial capitalism, as well as Black Lives Matter and its forebears—including the black radical tradition, the Black Panthers, South African anti-apartheid struggles, and organized labor—contributors to this volume offer a critical handbook to racial justice in the age of Trump.