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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.

It is worth noting that Marx fully recognized the Atlantic slave trade for what it was: a system of commercial trafficking in humans. In his discussion of “The Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist” in Capital, Marx wrote:

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Boston Review
Winter 2017
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WALTER JOHNSON IS UPSET at the state of the historiography
WALTER JOHNSON GIVES A BRACING critique of two ways
Walter Johnson demonstrates how little liberal humanism
BLACK HUMANITY IS UNEXCEPTIONAL, Walter Johnson exhorts.
IT HAS BEEN WORSE. Let’s not forget “The Nadir,” as
Are we not coming more and more, day by day, to making
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Symptomatic of being a slave is to forget you’re a
In addition to the work of our contributors, the editors
Dwayne Betts is a poet, memoirist, and teacher. His