Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Slavery 3 The evolution of slavery in modern times and the struggle for its abolition

Alexander Dolinin, author of Against Destiny, a thrilling story of an escape from Stalin's GULAG.

(print ISBN 9781601641731, Adobe ebook ISBN 9781601643261, Kindle ISBN 9781601643278, Sony ISBN 9781601643285)

In my last post (Slavery 2) I argued that the emergence of slavery was the first Great Fall of humankind.

Many slave systems in different parts of the world are well known to the broad public. Most North Americans, hearing the word “slavery”, will immediately recollect early modern slave plantations in both Americas. Those who know world history can also recollect ancient slavery in construction of the Egyptian pyramids (though as recent archeological data show the issue is not straightforward and that pyramids might be built not by slaves but by free professional craftsmen), ancient Greek silver mines, Roman stone quarries, and chained rowers on ancient, medieval or early modern galleys.

People today, when they read about slavery, can’t understand how anyone could do such a gruesome thing to their fellow human beings. To understand how they could, one must know that the notion that every human in the world is a “fellow human being” became the rule only well into the modern age. It was first clearly formulated only in the 18th century Enlightenment. Before that, everybody divided other people into “us” and “them”. Many people still do. From this point of view, a person is a fellow human being only if they are one of “us”. A person who is one of “them” is not quite a fellow human being, but something less. So the norms of behaviour towards a fellow human being fully apply only to those who are one of “us”, while the norms of behaviour towards those who are one of “them” vary with the circumstances: from neighbourly coexistence to fighting in war to treating them like domestic cattle or hunted wild animals.

For a kin-based or tribe-based traditional culture, the division between “us” and “them” is based primarily along kin or tribe lines: to be one of “us”, one must be a relative in the clan or a fellow tribesman, or possibly a member of another tribe related by blood or marriage. Any other human is one of “them”, with lesser status and weaker protection by one’s norms of behaviour. Later, the division between “us” and “them” is based upon ethnic divisions, borders between states, or religious divisions, such as that between Christians and heathens or between Muslims and infidels. For example, in the Middle Ages the Roman papacy explicitly banned enslavement of fellow-Christians and from the time of prophet Muhammad Islamic law similarly banned enslavement of Muslims. From then on, both Christians and Muslims generally enslaved only people of a different faith. Crusaders enslaved captive Muslim Moors, and German knights during their conquest of Slavic and Baltic lands enslaved pagan Slavs and Balts. In fact the word “slave” comes from the French word “Esclaves” (“Slavs”), used as a generic term for ethnic Slavs and Balts who were sold en masse in the late 12th and 13th centuries on European slave-markets. From the 16th century on, Europeans with colonies in the New World viewed “uncivilized” natives, whether Black or Indian, as “lawful” human material for enslavement, especially for use as plantation farm hands.

Only after the European Enlightenment of the 18th century did the most enlightened educated people in Europe and its colonies finally come to the conclusion that keeping fellow human beings of any nationality, race, religion or education in slavery or bondage was abnormal and immoral in principle. Only then did anti-slavery (abolishinism) movements begin. And only well into the 19th century did the anti-slavery movement gain enough momentum to bring about the abolition of slavery by the major European and American powers: 1833 in the British Empire, 1848 in the French colonies, 1865 in the whole United States. By the end of the 19th century slavery became practically extinct throughout Europe and the Americas.

However, it was resurrected later in the 20th century in the form of the Soviet GULAG, Nazi concentration camps, Japanese slave-labour camps and similar systems in totalitarian regimes of one stripe or another.

Though banned throughout the world, this scourge of history is far from extinct. Slavery still exists in many parts of Africa (e.g. Sudan and Mauritania) and Asia (e.g. Burma and parts of Pakistan). It also exists in Russia, in the northern Caucasus, but also in many northern and central regions. Perhaps half of these modern-age Russian slaves are self-enslaved homeless people. Others are illegal migrants and street children, captured by modern slave-traders, who are often police officers. Still others are conscripts in the armed forces, sold into slavery by their commanding officers. Surviving communist regimes like China, Vietnam and especially North Korea still run labour camps. In Russia there is yet another incarnation of slavery; conscript soldiers are reduced to a kind of temporary slavery. Not only are they denied (like any conscript) the right to choose their occupation and place of living during their service, but they are not paid, are rarely if at all allowed leave, usually combine military drill with mandatory labour are perpetually overworked, and are subjected, especially in the first months of their service, to constant physical and moral abuse, which leads many of them to suicide .

Thus slavery, like war and famine, has not yet become history, but remains a problem for humankind today.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Slavery 2 // The first great fall of humanity

Alexander Dolinin, author of Against Destiny

(print ISBN 9781601641731, Adobe ebook ISBN 9781601643261, Kindle ISBN 9781601643278, Sony ISBN 9781601643285)

In my previous post (Slavery 1), I explained how slavery emerged among human beings as a byproduct of the shift from hunter-gatherer societies to agricultural societies.

Some historians regard the emergence of slavery as progress. In hunter-gatherer societies, some point out, captives in inter-tribal wars were killed and eaten. In agricultural societies, captives were no longer exterminated but were spared–albeit to spend the rest of their lives in slavery.

I can’t agree.

First, slavery was normally so hard and brought so much pain, physical and emotional, and so often ended in violent death by the master’s whim, that quick death could be better–unless the slave had a chance to regain freedom by escape or manumission.

Second, before slavery wars between tribes and clans were quite rare. They were mainly due to blood revenge for a murdered fellow-tribesman or tribeswoman or to rivalry over contested hunting or gathering grounds–the latter especially in periods of scarcity. For decades and centuries, when neither blood revenge nor territorial disputes arose, peace was the norm of life. Probably everyone would agree with me that it would be much better if it had remained the norm of life throughout pre-modern times. Alas, when slavery emerged as a byproduct of the shift to agriculture, very soon there emerged slave markets, at which the captor of a slave was at any time able to sell his living booty for a certain price. Sometimes the price was higher, sometimes lower, but there was hardly a day throughout these many thousands of years when an able-bodied slave of either sex would not attract a buyer ready to pay a market price.

Not surprisingly, the frequency of wars as a result increased ten if not a hundred times. From then on wars between tribes, and later states, became pretty regular events throughout history. Probably in primitive societies before the emergence of slavery a whole century without any war was quite normal, though one certainly cannot say so for sure, considering the absence of written historical sources. In contrast, if you take the history of any nation at any time in the historical period, a century without any war, large or small, would be quite rare, at least in pre-modern and early modern periods. Even in times of peace, almost any person could be kidnapped and sold into slavery by raiders, pirates or random seekers of quick profit. Even the ancient Greek philosopher Plato was captured and sold into slavery, and had to be ransomed by his friend. Thus travelling alone or in a small unarmed group became dangerous. Thus in one Russian historical novel the main character, an ancient Phoenician teenager, when about to embark on a sea voyage into far-away lands, is warned by his mother: “Especially beware of those merchants who trade in human beings.”

Third, the emergence of torture and barbarous executions on a large scale was probably due to the emergence of slavery–a point that to my knowledge no historian or ethnographer has ever made. Not that tortures and barbarous executions were unknown before. But in primitive societies, as ethnographic evidence shows, even an ordinary death penalty was quite rare. Among ancient Slavs, Germanic tribes, most pre-contact American Indians and Siberian aboriginals alike, the normal punishment for murder, even of a fellow-tribesman or tribeswoman, was life-long exile from the clan or tribe. Probably a tribal council would impose the death penalty only for treason, sacrilege or murder of a revered clan member such as a clan elder. If so, executions would be rare.

As for torture, in pre-agricultural times when wars and murders were rare, there were few situations when there was a need to extract some information or confession from somebody or to punish somebody severely. This situation too evidently changed with the emergence of slavery. Most captives understandably resented their enslavement, and their owner could expect from them some form of resistance: escape, murder of the owner or his overseer, even rebellion. To discourage them from such resistance, the threat of a really brutal punishment was necessary. Further, the numerous wars brought about the torture of captives as means of extracting strategically valuable information. And from those prehistoric times until well into the modern period, human societies manifested extreme brutality towards their fellow humans.

All this shows that the emergence of slavery was indeed the first Great Fall of humankind, to use the Biblical term. As a result of the emergence of slavery, the famous Roman saying Homo homini lupus est (A human is a wolf to a human) became the norm for most of humankind for many thousand years to come.

In my next post (Slavery 3) I will talk about the evolution of slavery in pre-modern and modern times and the growing opposition to slavery that eventually resulted in its abolition.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Slavery 1 // Q: What brought slavery to humanity? A: Agriculture

Alexander Dolinin, author of Against Destiny

(print ISBN 9781601641731, Adobe ebook ISBN 9781601643261, Kindle ISBN 9781601643278, Sony ISBN 9781601643285)

I have been reading about slavery as part of the research for my second novel.

A slave is the property of another human or group of humans, on the same level as an inanimate object or a domestic animal. A slave’s owner can use the slave for any work; sell the slave; take sexual advantage; or even kill, torture or abuse the slave.

The slave on the other hand can’t choose where to live or what work to do; has no right to any property without permission from the master; cannot enter into trade, business or marital relations without the master’s permission; can travel only with permission; and depends for very survival on the master’s good will and the slave’s value as property

Just imagining oneself as a slave would make most people today tremble. Yet this status was the fate of many millions of our fellow human beings throughout pre-modern and early modern history. In fact, almost all the nations of the world experienced slavery. Even today, although it is banned almost throughout the world, it is far from extinct.

Slavery emerged long ago, in prehistoric times, before humans developed writing. Without written documentation, we will never know exactly when and where slavery first emerged, and who was the world’s first slave and who the first slave-owner. However, both the approximate time and the historical conditions of the emergence of slavery are clear from archaeological evidence.

In early prehistoric times, when most tools, implements and weapons were made of stone and bone, and the people still lived exclusively by hunting, fishing and gathering edible plants, there was no slavery, at least on a large scale. The main reason was that in such societies it was impractical. The primary goal of enslavement is taking advantage of the slave’s labour. It’s pretty risky to send a slave to gather edible plants in deep woods where the slave can escape, let alone send one to hunt with a weapon that the slave could use against the master. Theoretically, one can imagine such a hunter-gatherer society using slave labour for tending skins, processing the spoils of hunting and fishing, working with firewood, or cleaning the master’s dwelling. But that would mean that the tribal community would have to feed such a slave from the spoils of the free tribesmen’s labours, which in most cases were barely enough for their own and their children’s subsistence. So, not surprisingly, people in hunter-gatherer societies did not practice slavery. In particular, they did not make slaves of enemies captured in war. Wars did occasionally break out between hunter-gatherer communities, mainly as blood revenge for a murdered fellow-tribesman or to resolve a dispute over hunting-grounds. But the captives were usually not taken as slaves. Instead, they were killed and eaten.

The situation changed drastically with the emergence of agriculture (“civilization”). Unlike hunting and gathering, agriculture provides ample opportunities for use of forced labour, in terms of both the nature of the work and the creation of a surplus. We know from archaeological evidence of differences in modes of burial that slavery first emerged with agriculture

In intertribal armed conflicts, captives were brought to the victorious community and enslaved, enemy warriors and women and children alike.

In my next post (Slavery 2), I will show how the emergence of slavery had such disastrous consequences that it can rightly be called the first great fall of humankind.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Versailles: The Peace Treaty that Caused a World War

Alexander Dolinin, author of Against Destiny

(print ISBN 9781601641731, Adobe ebook ISBN 9781601643261, Kindle ISBN 9781601643278, Sony ISBN 9781601643285)

Not long ago I watched the film “Paris 1919", which depicts quite vividly the process of creating the Versailles Peace Treaty. The events are shown (partly as documentaries, partly as a movie recreation) through the eyes of Canadian diplomat Harold Nicolson, who was attached to the British delegation at the Paris Peace Conference. The conference was to define the conditions of the peace treaty and the fate of post-war Germany. The three major players in the negotiations - British Prime Minister Lloyd George, French Premier Georges Clemenceau, and US President Woodrow Wilson - all blamed Germany for starting the war and for the devastation it caused.

The three allies actually had quite different agendas in these peace negotiations. The British wanted to eliminate Germany’s economic and naval power–well, it’s good to get rid of one’s major competitor. The French, obsessed with revenge and fear going back to their defeat in the Franco-Prussian war, wanted to reduce Germany to economic and military non-existence, so that it never became strong again. As for U.S. President Woodrow Wilson (Oh! This American idealism!), he just wanted to create a League of Nations, an international body that would ensure that a conflict like World War I would never happen again. But to achieve this goal he needed the support of the British and the French, so he had to compromise and placate his allies in all the absurdity of their outrageous demands. The only sane voice on how much Germany should pay in reparations belonged to John Maynard Keynes , a British economist, who calculated the amount of reparations it could afford to pay–but who listens to the sanity of a normal professional in the face of “high” geopolitical ambitions?

The film is emotionally and rationally difficult to watch, especially from the present-day perspective, when we know how post-treaty events developed. With some kind of malicious satisfaction I learned that all three leaders were “punished “ by history - none of them had a political future. But the world suffered terribly from their short-sightedness (not to say stupidity).

As we know, the Versailles Peace Treaty, whose 90th anniversary was marked last summer, officially ended World War I. Although Allied war propaganda described the “Great War” as “the war to end all wars”, it was only 20 years later that World War II broke out. The harsh terms of the Versailles Peace Treaty were ultimately responsible for this, the most devastating war in human history.

Article 231 of the Versailles Treaty, the “war guilt” clause, proclaimed Germany solely responsible for the start of the war and therefore solely accountable for all the losses and damages. The western Allies were determined to make Germany weak, not only militarily, but also economically, which they perceived as the best guarantee against future German aggression. The vanquished Germany was deprived of all her overseas colonies and of many territories in Europe. Its military size was severely restricted: a regular army of no more than 100,000 men and a navy of no more than six cruisers, six destroyers and 12 torpedo boats. These conditions were humiliating for a nation used to great power status. However, to my mind it was not these military restrictions, or at least not only they, that prepared such fertile ground for the resurgence of extreme nationalism.

Far more pressing, and unbearable to the average German, were the severe reparation payments imposed by the victorious Allies. The treaty initially required total payments of 269 billion gold marks, equivalent to about 400 billion US dollars today. Though the sum was reduced later to 132 billion marks, it still remained an overwhelming burden on the German people. They paid most of it in the form of heavy surplus taxes, and the rest in the form of coal, steel, agricultural products and even intellectual property (such as the trademark for Aspirin). Thus the nation lost the vast profits it could otherwise have made from exports of these trade items, and it paid higher prices for them on the internal market. This economic squeeze inevitably impoverished the mass of the German people. It brought hyperinflation in the early 1920s and a severe economic crisis during the Great Depression. It was no surprise that Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party, the most vociferous opponent of “the humiliations of Versailles”, got increasing support, until it finally seized power in 1933, during the Great Depression.

When the Versailles Treaty was signed, Germany’s first democratically elected Chancellor, Social Democrat Philipp Scheidemann, resigned in protest, saying: “Which hand, trying to put us in chains like these, would not wither? The treaty is unacceptable.” His words were prophetic: the victorious Allies would eventually pay a heavy price in World War II for putting the German people “in chains like these”.

The “chains” of Versailles were not justified. First, contrary to the statements of French and British politicians, Germany was not solely responsible for the outbreak of the War. Second, and most importantly, whatever the degree of responsibility of the German government, it was the semi-autocratic regime of Kaiser Wilhelm II that started the war. The German people overthrew this regime in the November 1918 revolution. The subsequent Liberal-Social-Democratic provisional government, which signed the armistice with the Allies as practically its first step, reflected the will of the majority of the war-weary German people. The heavy Versailles “chains” bound these people, while the kaiser lived comfortably in exile in the Netherlands, even though he had been proclaimed a war criminal. This disparity of treatment inevitably produced nationalist anti-Allies sentiment in many German commoners, who not long before were favouring the end of the war at nearly any cost. This sentiment was exploited by the Nazis, with the final results that we all know.

Thus the “war to end all wars” ended in a peace settlement that brought about a new World War. The main lesson is that a peace settlement that leaves any nation vanquished, humiliated and plundered (in practice if not in theory) inevitably brings about new conflicts and wars, rather than lasting peace.