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Slavery; an institution of oppression that exists in two main forms


Slavery is a very old institution within human societies, dating as far back as recorded history allows.  There are two primary forms of slavery, direct and indirect.  While the former is more obvious and more openly reviled, the latter is far more common.

In direct slavery, an individual is owned by another individual or group.  Ownership is direct, as a form of property, with the slave occupying a legal status similar to that of a draft animal.  The slave and all their creative efforts and labour are owned by the slave owner.  This is the form of slavery that the abolition movement of the 17th-19th centuries targeted and the form common in Imperial Rome.  It is now relatively uncommon in the world, with areas of Africa and the Islamic world being the main holdouts against it's total eradication.

Indirect slavery is a far more common and persistent form of slavery.  In indirect slavery, the slave has limited or no intellectual property rights, limited or no physical property rights and does not own the products of their own creativity, skills or labour, or only very small percentages of them.  Common in early Rome, this form of slavery continued into the modern era as feudal serfdom, indentured servitude and socialism.  The slave is not 'owned' by anyone, but 'owe' the products of their economic activities to another individual or group, rendering their exercise of fundamental human rights impossible.

In any form of slavery, the primary violation of the individual comes in the form of theft.  In direct slavery, the theft is of humanity and it's economic output.  In indirect slavery, it is in the theft of the serf, servant or socialist worker's creative production, skills or labour.


A slave plantation owner in South Carolina in 1840 could hardly come up with a better vision statement for their slave drivers than, 'From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.'  

As a keen student of Lincoln, Marx must surely have understood the gravity of his statement.  He was either deeply malevolent or incredibly stupid and the evidence does not support the latter conclusion.

In feudal serfdom, the serfs belonged to the land which, in turn, belonged to the military class of landowner.  The serfs had certain rights that pure slaves didn't have, but were required to work the land on behalf of the nobility.  In socialism, the proletariat have certain rights but belonged to the collective/state, and the products of their labour belonged to the collective/state.

In Russia, serfdom only ended in 1861.  At that point, Russian serfs were free to pursue their own destiny according to their work ethic, skills and knowledge.  By 1917, some of them had managed to crawl out of poverty and come to own the land that once owned them.  By 1930, only 69 years after they were freed, Russian farm workers were once again serfs working on collective farms, with the slight change of being enslaved by a newer and more ruthless ruling class.  It is entirely probable that many older Russian Kulaks imprisoned during Lenin's 'Red Terror' were able to remember being freed from serfdom as children.  What a cruel irony that a population only just free from one form of slavery was, in only 56 years, returned to an even crueler slave economy.

What is most important to remember about all forms of slavery is the atmosphere of violence.  Slaves and serfs are either forced to work by violence or threats of violence or have their property continually appropriated through the use of violence or the threat of violence.

It is worth mentioning sharecropping and bonded service in this article.  As the older institution, I'll cover bonded service first.

In biblical writings, one finds both slavery and bonded service, both translated as 'slavery' in some English bibles.  In Judeo-Christian teaching and philosophy, the former is never acceptable, but the latter is.  So, what's the difference?  Simply put, a bonded servant was bonded to a master for a period of 7 years.  Jacob, who was later renamed Israel, was the father of the brothers whose families became the 12 tribes of Israel.  In his early life, he voluntarily entered bonded service with his father-in-law in order to win his wife's hand in marriage.  In that case, a period of service was completed as part of a transactional arrangement, or contract.  In other cases, a destitute individual or family could sell themselves into bondage.  In this case they were contracted for a period of 7 years.  Crucially, the legal status of a bonded servant was that of 'family'.  A bond servant in ancient Jewish society held the same legal status as a member of their master's children and were due the same treatment with regards to care, food and lodgings.  Additionally, they held positions of authority over hired labourers etc.  At the end of their bonded service, they were free to go, usually with an earned inheritance.

A bond servant in ancient Israel was an adult adoption system when used in its intended form.  Obviously, it also came under abuse from time to time, but the institution was not intrinsically evil, at the time it was the only welfare safety net for many people.

Indentured service was a variation on this concept, primarily in the form of a contract for which an individual attained passage to a new country in exchange for a period of work for the company that brought them from Europe (or wherever).  Unfortunately, in many industries, the indentured servant was housed in company housing and could only get food at the company store for prices that generally exceeded their 'pay'.  As a result, they never got free of their indentured service.  The old Johnny Cash song lyric 'I owe my soul to the company store . . . ' (song 'Sixteen Tons') comes from experiences with de-facto indentured service in coal mining.

The first legal 'slave' in the American Colonies was owned by a Black Angolan named Anthony Johnson, who arrived in the US as an indentured servant.  Indentured servants worked a contracted period, after which they were supposedly legally free to go.  Generally, this service was in repayment for their passage, room, board and other fees.  Once freed, he became a successful tobacco farmer and took on several indentured servants.  In a legal battle in 1655, Johnson had a servant's service extended for life, the first judicial determination in American history that resulted in an individual being held in service for life despite having not committed any crime.  This was a clear case of indentured service being transformed into slavery.

Sharecropping is another institution often abused, in particular by Southern Democrats in the US post-reconstruction.  It is worth noting that sharecropping does not always fit within either definition of slavery.  A fair or just sharecropping agreement gives the sharecropper sufficient control over their own production and, therefore, and ability to exercise their fundamental human rights.  However, an unjust arrangement can result in a situation in which the sharecropper is indebted to the landlord and a form of life-long indentured servitude results.  Examples of both are common in the recent history of the western world, and in modern Africa and Southeast Asia.

It is against the backdrop of continual violence against the individual that the liberal concept of 'The Right to Revolution' was born.  Many classical liberals opined that this 'right' was not just a right, but a 'duty'.  This, and other rights, will be discussed in future articles.

Slavery, a pernicious and persistent evil among human societies, is alive an well in 2019 and it is my firm belief that the continued advance of human civilisation must have, at it's foundation, the complete eradication of all forms of slavery.

Reading List:

'Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution' - McPherson, James M.

'The abolition of serfdom in Russia 1762–1907' - Moon, David.

 - Many historical works on Medieval European History

 - Many historical works on Rome and the Ancient World.

Last Edited - 15 Jan 19

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