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The Colosseum in Rome, built in the slave society of the Roman Empire

Slavery is a relation of production and mode of production characterised by the ownership of humans and forced labour.

Slavery is the oldest form of exploitation and class society. The master is the owner of the slave. Slave labor is not capable of creating serious technological progress because of its low productivity. Slaves had no motivation to work besides avoiding punishment and often protested by damaging the means of production.[1]

By the fourth millennium BCE, slave states existed in Mesopotamia (Sumer, Bablyonia, and Assyria), Egypt, India, and China. Slavery also existed in Urarta in the Caucasus during the first millennium BCE and in Khwarazm (now Uzbekistan) in the fifth and sixth centuries CE.[1]

Mode of production

Since ancient times, the slave was legally defined as a commodity that the owner could sell, buy, give away or exchange for a debt, without the slave being able to exercise any appeal or objections. Most of the time there were ethnic differences between the slave trader and the slave, since slavery is usually based on a strong racial prejudice, according to which the ethnic group to which the trader belongs is considered superior to that of the slaves.

This racial component of slavery informs us on the superstructure prevalent in this mode of production: to establish power over slaves (the base, as the mode of production), laws were required to make a distinction between slave owners and slaves. It is very likely that in the earliest forms of slavery, a racial component was not present and only developed later as slavery became more institutionalised under the state and bigger empires emerged, that needed a way to control their large slave population.

The practice of slavery dates from prehistoric times, although its institutionalization probably occurred when agricultural advances made possible more organized societies that required slaves for certain functions. To obtain them other towns were conquered; however, some individuals sold themselves or their family members to pay outstanding debts; slavery was also a punishment for those who committed a crime.

Slavery was an accepted and often essential part of the economy and society of ancient civilizations. In ancient Mesopotamia, India and China slaves were used in households, in commerce, in large-scale construction, and in agriculture. The ancient Egyptians used them to build royal palaces and monuments. The ancient Hebrews also used slaves, but their religion required them to free their own people on certain dates. In South American civilizations (Aztec, Inca and Mayan), they were used in agriculture and the army. Among the Aztecs, practitioners of different trades bought slaves to offer them in sacrifice to their patron god.

Status of slaves

After the full development of class society, owners had complete control over their slaves. They were bought and sold like livestock and could be killed without punishment. Owners whipped their slaves to make them work and only fed them enough to keep them alive.[1]

Historical development

Early slavery

Slavery began on a small scale and boosted production for patriarchal families that emerged after the fall of primitive communism. It was not the main source of economic production and had limited applications during this period. Slaves during this period were not treated as badly and were considered members of the family.[1]

European slavery

In Homer's epic poems, slavery is the logical fate of prisoners of war. The Greek philosophers did not regard the condition of slave as morally reprehensible, even though Aristotle proposed freeing faithful slaves. In ancient Greece, slaves, with rare exceptions, were treated with consideration. However, the Helots of Sparta (descendants of a conquered people and forced to work hard in the fields and fight in the Spartan armies) were treated with great severity, mainly because their population was larger than that of their rulers.

Generally, slaves were used as domestic workers, in urban trades, and in the countryside, in the marine and transportation. Domestic slavery, in general, was less harsh, since the treatment they received was usually very familiar. Greek slaves often worked in groups in workshops and mines, while slave labor in Rome was widely used for agriculture. Roman slavery differed from Greek in several respects, but both Greece and Rome relied on war for their supply of slaves.[1]

Roman slavery

The Romans had more rights over their slaves, including life and death. Slavery was in Rome much more necessary to the economy and the social system than in ancient Greece, especially during the Empire period. The wealthy Romans, who owned large mansions in the city and in the countryside, depended on large numbers of slaves to maintain their homes and agricultural estates. The Roman aristocracy seized land from peasants and the state to create large estates called latifundia with hundreds or thousands of slaves.[1]

The imperial conquests decimated the Roman armies, so that it became necessary to import large numbers of foreign slaves to carry out the work in the fields. The main source of slaves was war: tens of thousands of prisoners were brought to Rome as slaves; However, all those convicted of serious crimes and the debtors, who sold themselves or their family members to pay their debts, became slaves.

Eventually, it became difficult (if not impossible) to keep importing slaves from conquered territories, especially as Rome also carried a policy of Romanisation: conquered territories were integrated as Roman, were taught Latin, were subjected to Roman law and paid taxes. The Roman economy however also required growth to keep up with their conquests and the administration of their huge territory. This contradiction was one factor in the decline of the Roman civilisation. Another big factor was the Migration period, when Germanic tribes migrated all over Europe (and beyond) which, with sheer numbers, were able to steal territory from a declining Rome and settle there.

Non-European slavery

In slave states in Asia, communal and state ownership of land was more common, and construction was centralized to create irrigation dams and canals. Peasants payed very high taxes to an autocratic monarch.[1]

End of slavery as a mode of production


During the fall of the Roman Empire between the 5th and 10th centuries, the institution of slavery in Europe was slowly replaced by feudalism. This spelled the end of slavery as a major mode of production at least in Europe (it continued to varying degrees in other parts of the world).

Feudalism replaced slavery during the Migration period. According to the textbook of political economy (by the Economics Institute of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR):

Feudalism arose on the basis of the disintegration of slave-owning society and the break-up of the village community of the tribes which conquered the slave-owning States. In those countries where there had been no slave-owning system, feudalism arose on the basis of the break-up of the primitive community system. The clan aristocracy and military leaders of the tribes took into their hands a great quantity of lands and distributed them among their followers. The gradual enserfing of the peasants took place.[2]

By 1250, slavery had disappeared from Europe and been replaced by serfdom.[3]

Modern slavery

Since the rise of feudalism, the practice of slavery has still continued, albeit not as the dominant mode of production.

Colonial slavery

The exploration of the coasts of Africa and European contact with the Americas in the 15th century greatly boosted the modern trade in slaves. Following the liberal revolutions in Europe, slavery reached its maximum development, rising from 330,000 slaves in America in 1700 to almost three million 1800 and over six million by 1850. In the mid-18th century, Britain (878,000) had the most slaves, followed by Portugal (700,000).[4]

By 1830, largely due to Simón Bolívar, slavery was abolished in most of Spain's former colonies but continued to exist in the United States and the British and Dutch colonies.[5]

Contemporary slavery

See main article: Slavery in the United States

The constitution of the United States allows for slavery in cases of imprisonment.

Further reading

  • Ali, Miriam. Sin compasión: la lucha de una mujer contra la esclavitud actual. Barcelona: Editorial Seix Barral, 2ª ed., 1996. Importante análisis de la situación de la mujer ante la esclavitud.
  • Sandoval, Alonso de. Un tratado sobre la esclavitud. Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 1987. Un tratado clásico sobre la esclavitud y la condición de los esclavos.
  • Ecured.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 Economics Institute of the Academy of Sciences of the U.S.S.R (1954). Political Economy: 'The Slave-Owning Mode of Production'. [PDF] London: Lawrence & Wishart. [MIA]
  2. Economics Institute of the Academy of Sciences of the U.S.S.R (1954). Political Economy: 'The feudal mode of production; Brief conclusions'.
  3. Domenico Losurdo (2011). Liberalism: A Counter-History: 'What Is Liberalism?' (p. 32). [PDF] Verso. ISBN 9781844676934 [LG]
  4. Domenico Losurdo (2011). Liberalism: A Counter-History: 'Liberalism and Racial Slavery: A Unique Twin Birth' (p. 35). [PDF] Verso. ISBN 9781844676934 [LG]
  5. Domenico Losurdo (2011). Liberalism: A Counter-History: 'Crisis of the English and American Models' (pp. 149–150). [PDF] Verso. ISBN 9781844676934 [LG]