The Topless Dancer, Slavery and the Origins of Capitalism

Although I’ve written thirty-five articles about the origins of capitalism over the years, I never suspected that my first for CounterPunch would be prompted in a roundabout way by my relationship with a topless dancer forty years ago.

In the middle of May, I blogged an excerpt from an unpublished comic book memoir I did with Harvey Pekar in 2008. It covered my experience in Houston in the mid-seventies, part of which involved an affair with a comrade who had been dancing in Montrose just before I arrived, a neighborhood that mixed bohemia, gay and topless bars, and apartment complexes geared to swingers in double-knit suits.

About a week after the excerpt appeared, someone directed to a Facebook page that belonged to a well-known ISO dissertation student who having posted a link to my blog frowned on the idea that I would write a memoir without ever having done anything. Since the memoir was written under the direction of Harvey Pekar, who toiled for decades in obscurity as a file clerk in a veteran’s hospital in Cleveland, I doubt that the student had a clue about the memoir’s intention. It was not a saga about exemplary deeds in the revolutionary movement but recounted instead the humdrum life of a rank-and-filer who felt deeply alienated by what amounted to a cult. Plus, lots of jokes. After all, it was a comic book as Harvey insisted on calling his work.

Parenthetically I would advise against reading the blog of someone you hate. It is bad for your mental health. As a recommendation to the young dissertation student or anybody else with a grudge against me, let me paraphrase what Jeeves said to Bertie Wooster, substituting “Proyect” for “Nietzsche”: “You would not enjoy Nietzsche, sir. He is fundamentally unsound.”

As the Facebook feeding frenzy spilled across multiple timelines serving as an amen chorus to the dissertation student, word got back to me that I was being condemned by hundreds—maybe thousands—of lefties as a “misogynist”. This undoubtedly must have had something to do with my memoir describing how my girlfriend used to dance for me in the privacy of my shag-carpeted Montrose apartment. I am glad I left out the business about our Teletubbies doll fetish since that would certainly have led to me being excluded from polite leftist society forever.

Of course, this reminded me of the last go-round with ISO’ers over misogyny. Just over two years ago, their members were up in arms over Ruth Fowler writing an article in CounterPunch that amounted in their eyes to “guffawing over Angelina Jolie’s recent decision to undergo a preventative double mastectomy.” I suppose there is some connection to my situation since Ruth Fowler also worked as a stripper at one point in her life. If she had been trained in the ISO, Ruth would never have gone near a topless bar. Some might say that it was far better that she never went near the ISO, a den of iniquity if there ever was one—the offense being intellectual conformity rather than lewd and lascivious behavior.

Undoubtedly the primary motive for these Orwellian minutes of hate on Facebook was the critiques I have written of the ISO’s “Leninism” on CounterPunch and my blog as well. On top of that, the dissertation student must have hated my articles on the origins of capitalism that were an attempt to rebut the theories of Robert Brenner and his followers who are organized informally as “Political Marxists”, a trend that is still very powerful in the left academy but now arguably falling out of fashion. Since the dissertation student was a fervent member in good standing of the Political Marxism tendency, you can easily imagine why he would want to encourage the idea that I was like Bill Cosby.

It all boils down to this. Because I had the impudence to challenge the ideas of a prestigious UCLA professor and Marxist celebrity about the origins of capitalism, the word had gotten out long ago that I was sticking my nose in where it did not belong. I was like a medical school dropout performing appendectomies, not smart enough to know that you needed proper credentials to write about matters that more properly belonged in those journals that Aaron Swartz was trying to liberate.

Sometimes referred to as the “transition debate”, it all began with a series of articles that grew out of a Science and Society review by Paul Sweezy of Maurice Dobb’s 1947 “Studies in the Development of Capitalism“. Dobb had set forth a new interpretation in his book: capitalism was essentially an internally generated system brought on by profound changes in class relations in the British countryside during the waning middle ages. Sweezy argued that it was primarily a function of expanding trade based in towns rather than the countryside. Between the two men, there was no attempt to stigmatize each other as departing from Marxist principles. It was simply a difference of scholarly interpretation.

Despite the focus on the British countryside, Dobb admitted that mercantilism—the system we associate with colonialism and slavery—played a “highly important role in the adolescence of capitalist industry”. In doing so, he was obviously being mindful of how Marx characterized the genesis of the industrial capitalist in chapter thirty-one of Capital, Volume 1:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.

You can also find Karl Marx stressing the importance of mercantilism in chapter 20 of Capital, volume 3:

There is no doubt — and it is precisely this fact which has led to wholly erroneous conceptions — that in the 16th and 17th centuries the great revolutions, which took place in commerce with the geographical discoveries and speeded the development of merchant’s capital, constitute one of the principal elements in furthering the transition from feudal to capitalist mode of production. [emphasis added] The sudden expansion of the world-market, the multiplication of circulating commodities, the competitive zeal of the European nations to possess themselves of the products of Asia and the treasures of America, and the colonial system — all contributed materially toward destroying the feudal fetters on production.

None of this mattered to Robert Brenner when he began writing articles in the 1970s making the case that it was only in the British countryside that a transition to capitalism took place. Everywhere else farming was a small-scale, self-sustaining enterprise but due to what amounted to an accident of history farming took on a more competitive character in England as long-term leases were extended to a new class of profit-seeking entrepreneurs controlling vast estates.

Once it gained a foothold there, the system matured and then diffused to the rest of the world. Given his scholarly credentials, one might have expected Brenner to explain where Marx went wrong on the colonialism and slavery question. It is entirely possible that Brenner is right and that Marx was wrong but in the absence of a clear accounting for the differences, one cannot help but wonder if they were simply being swept under the rug.

In the July-August 1977 issue of New Left Review, Brenner made a huge splash with an erudite restatement of his scholarly views on the origins of capitalism. But unlike Maurice Dobb, the thirty-three year old professor had no problem categorizing Paul Sweezy as beyond the pale of Marxism, likening him to Adam Smith.

It seemed that by emphasizing the role of slavery and colonialism, the theorists grouped around Sweezy’s Monthly Review were accommodating themselves to the “national bourgeoisie” and fostering “a false strategy for anti-capitalist revolution.” There was a danger that “third-worldist ideology” might creep into the Marxist movement and tempt socialists away from the class struggle into worshipping false idols like Sukarno or Nkrumah.

Brenner’s difference with Marx, whether or not he ever understood it, can be reduced in the final analysis to his tendency to conflate slavery and serfdom in the general category of coerced labor:

Only where labour has been separated from possession of the means of production, and where labourers have been emancipated from any direct relation of domination (such as slavery or serfdom), are both capital and labour power ‘free’ to make possible their combination at the highest possible level of technology. Only where they are free, will such combination appear feasible and desirable. Only where they are free, will such combination be necessitated.

While Marx never wrote at great length about slavery as a mode of production, he would never relate it to the feudal system that prevailed in Europe prior to the rise of capitalism. Serfdom was a form of exploitation geared to the creation of food and clothing to sustain an aristocrat’s soldiers and the provision of obligatory labor such as building roads or clearing brush on his manor. Slavery, on the other hand, was designed to supply commodities to the world market, especially when free wage labor was not available on a Caribbean island or the Mississippi Delta. Marx put it this way in a letter to Pavel Vasilyevich Annenkov in 1847:

Direct slavery is as much the pivot upon which our present-day industrialism turns as are machinery, credit, etc. Without slavery there would be no cotton, without cotton there would be no modern industry. It is slavery that has given value to the colonies, it is the colonies that have created world trade, and world trade is the necessary condition for large-scale machine industry. Consequently, prior to the slave trade, the colonies sent very few products to the Old World, and did not noticeably change the face of the world. Slavery is therefore an economic category of paramount importance.

In the recent past there has been one significant scholarly work after another that expounds on Marx’s cursory observation that “Without slavery there would be no cotton, without cotton there would be no modern industry.” Walter Johnson’s “Rivers of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom” draws upon slave narratives, popular literature, legal records and personal correspondence to demonstrate how tied in the South was to global capitalist markets rather than existing as some kind of feudal backwater. Edward Baptist’s “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism”, as the title implies, makes the case that slavery was the “pivot” for industrialism, as Marx put it. Finally and most essential for the cotton, slavery and capitalism connection there is Sven Beckert’s “Empire of Cotton: A Global History”.

In a useful summary of the new literature, Beckert wrote an article titled “Slavery and Capitalism” for the December 12, 2014 edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education, that is appropriately illustrated with a graphic of a slave’s chains connected to a one hundred dollar bill. Beckert wrote:

For too long, many historians saw no problem in the opposition between capitalism and slavery. They depicted the history of American capitalism without slavery, and slavery as quintessentially noncapitalist. Instead of analyzing it as the modern institution that it was, they described it as premodern: cruel, but marginal to the larger history of capitalist modernity, an unproductive system that retarded economic growth, an artifact of an earlier world.

This would obviously include Robert Brenner and his followers.

In the very next paragraph, Beckert refers to the original theorists making the connection between slavery and capitalism: “Some scholars have always disagree with such accounts. In the 1930s and 1940s, C.L.R. James and Eric Williams argued for the centrality of slavery to capitalism, though their findings were largely ignored.”

But I certainly did not ignore them when I joined the Trotskyist movement in 1967. Among the first books I read about African-American history was Eric Williams’s “Capitalism and Slavery” that can thankfully be read on the Internet. “Capitalism and Slavery” was based on his Oxford dissertation. Williams met with James, his former tutor, on numerous occasions when both were living in England. It seems that James read both drafts of the dissertation and had a significant role in formulating the book’s primary thesis, namely that sugar plantations, rum and slavery trade helped to catapult Great Britain into world domination at the expense of the African peoples in the Diaspora. Without the underdevelopment of Jamaica, Trinidad, etc., capitalist development in Great Britain would not have had the supercharged character that it did.

Can one conjecture on why the tide is turning against Robert Brenner’s Political Marxism group? In broad-brush strokes, you might see it as a necessary correction that recognizes the contribution made to modern civilization by slave labor. When Brenner wrote his NLR article in 1977, it was an attempt to write off “Third World” Marxism as some sort of deviation from class-based politics. The student movement was receding and the youthful enthusiasm over Che Guevara or Ho Chi Minh now seemed misplaced.

Nearly forty years later, the Third World continues to be an inexhaustible source of revolutionary energy. Given the importance of Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution, it might be useful to reflect on his inspiration’s legacy.

Simón Bolivar was staunchly anti-slavery, liquidating his plantation and freeing his slaves early on in his political career. He had visited newly liberated Haiti in 1815 to get help for his revolution. Alexandre Pétion, Haiti’s president furnished 4,000 muskets, 15,000 pounds of powder, flints, lead and a printing press and in return for freeing South America’s slaves, something that Bolivar was happy to do.

In 1939, C.L.R. James wrote an article titled “Revolution and the Negro” that referred to this act of solidarity:

Menaced during its whole existence by imperialism, European and American, the Haitians have never been able to overcome the bitter heritage of their past. Yet that revolution of a half million not only helped to protect the French Revolution but initiated great revolutions in its own right. When the Latin American revolutionaries saw that half a million slaves could fight and win, they recognised the reality of their own desire for independence. Bolivar, broken and ill, went to Haiti. The Haitians nursed him back to health, gave him money and arms with which he sailed to the mainland. He was defeated, went back to Haiti, was once more welcomed and assisted. And it was from Haiti that he sailed to start on the final campaign, which ended in the independence of the five states.

I first learned about the Brenner thesis from James M. Blaut, the author of more than a hundred scholarly articles, who had joined the Marxism list to spread the word about his two books “The Colonizer’s Model of the World” and “Eight Eurocentric Historians”, which included a chapter on Robert Brenner. Blaut, who was a supporter of the Puerto Rican Socialist Party (his wife Meca was a key leader) and who described getting arrested at a Vietnam War protest as his greatest accomplishment, was no elitist when it came to debating the merits of his books. He saw the Internet as a democratic and freewheeling medium that was essential for clarifying and spreading socialist ideas. An article commemorating Blaut in Antipode, a journal to which he had contributed numerous articles, stated that his work was almost certainly inspired by C.L.R. James and Eric Williams.

Pancreatic cancer took his life before he was able to complete the third installment of a trilogy on Eurocentrism and historiography. The final work, which was in progress, advanced a way of writing history that would give people like Simón Bolivar their proper due. It would also acknowledge the importance of slavery in American development that has been reflected in a work like Craig Wilder’s “Ebony and Ivory” that documents how some of the most prestigious American universities were funded by the proceeds of the slave trade or the plantation system.

It is too bad that Blaut did not live long enough to see works by Beckert, Baptist and Johnson making the case that he made until illness made it impossible to write another word, either in print or on the Internet. He would have been pleased to know that such scholars are effectively completing the third volume of his trilogy by their example.

Louis Proyect blogs at and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.


Louis Proyect blogged at and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.