The American Crucible

The American Crucible

It is tempting to see Robin Blackburn's The American Crucible as the capstone of an influential career. As a founding editor of the New Left Review and Verso, leading activist in the London university protests of the late 1960s, and author of a number of important studies of New World slavery and global economics, Blackburn has long pondered many of the themes related to human freedom he explores here. But this new book, monumental though it is, shouldn't be read as a culmination but rather a catching of breath, and a continuation of arguments initially made by the great original theorists of the Atlantic World system, Eric Williams, CLR James, and WEB Du Bois, who, writing in the early 20th century, were among the first to stress the importance of slavery in the creation of western culture and society.

Because it tied together so many threads of human interaction – transportation, communication, warfare, labour, finance, trade, consumption, manufacturing, agriculture, inter-imperial rivalry, territorial expansion – slavery is the last institution that historians can still call a "system" without feeling like relics from the 1970s. Still, there are now few big books making the argument that slavery and its overthrow made the modern world.

The American Crucible – which covers half a millennia, all of the Americas, and a good deal of Europe and Africa – bucks this trend. Along with Williams, a descendent of both slaves and slave traders who was elected the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Blackburn stresses slavery's role in underwriting the west's industrial expansion. With James, also a descendent of slaves, Blackburn credits the importance of political struggle and ideas in rendering slavery morally indefensible. And with Du Bois, likewise also descended from Caribbean slaves, Blackburn explores the psychic and ideological construction of white supremacy following slavery's formal end.

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