Socialism and Slavery within the British and German Socialist Labour Movements, 1830–1890

I know and deeply deplore the sufferings which the workingmen at Manchester and in all Europe are called to endure in this crisis. It has been often and studiously represented that the attempt to overthrow this government, which was built upon the foundation of human rights, and to substitute for it one which should rest exclusively on the basis of human slavery, was likely to obtain the favor of Europe. Through the actions of our disloyal citizens the workingmen of Europe have been subjected to a severe trial, for the purpose of forcing their sanction to that attempt.1

With these words, among others, the American President Lincoln addressed a famous letter to the workers of Manchester in January 1863. What had happened? Manchester and Lancashire suffered from the Cotton Famine from 1862 onwards, which made many workers unemployed and drove them into poverty. Supporting the Confederate States in the American Civil War, as many merchants and members of the upper classes did, could therefore have been an obvious way for the workers to get back to work and earn a crust. Yet under difficult conditions, workers continued to support the northern states and the struggle to end slavery. In Manchester city centre today, a large statue commemorates this contact between sections of the British working class and the American president.

But it is also worth remembering other words by Lincoln, who, while privately a strong opponent of slavery, was on a mission to preserve the Union during the American Civil War:

My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.2

These letters and other topics will be explored in my Ph.D. project, which, under the working title ‘Socialism and Slavery’, examines the attitudes of the British and German socialist labour movements to the question of slavery. The work will be carried out using a mix of methods from the histoire croisée approach to the history of entanglements, as well as a classical comparison where entanglements were scarce or non-existent. Moreover, there will be discourse analyses in each of the three main chapters (colonial slavery, wage slavery, women as slaves). In this way, it should be possible to intertwine the different discourses both thematically and across national borders.

My previous work on the British socialist labour movement and that of the German states or the German Empire has shown that the concept of slavery was used by both movements in very different contexts. In addition to classical slavery in South America, the southern states of the USA, the Caribbean, and in their own colonies, European activists were also concerned with other conditions that had to do with perceived enslavement, such as the exploitative conditions in early industrial capitalism, where the keywords ‘white slavery’ and ‘wage slavery’ stand out. Another point was the oppressive patriarchal relationship that placed men over women, who were interpreted by some socialists as the slaves of men. The aim of my thesis is therefore not only to examine the attitudes of British and German socialists to classical colonial slavery, as might initially be assumed, but also to explore how and why the term ‘slavery’ was used and what discourses developed around it. My goal is not to relativize colonial slavery, but to reflect on and sharpen our current understanding of the term by also studying the appropriation of slavery as a metaphor. My thesis attempts to trace these different discursive ways in which the concept of slavery was used, and pursues the central research question of how and why the socialist labour movements in Britain and the German states, or the German Empire, used the topos of slavery in the period 1830–90. Based on my findings so far, a hypothesis has emerged that on both the British and German sides, the topos of slavery was used for different purposes when denouncing the ‘domination of man over man’ (to echo a socialist slogan).

Statue of Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln Square, Manchester. Photograph by Mike Peel, licensed under a CC-BY-SA-4.0 license.

As my thesis will show, the argument that workers in early industrialized capitalism were living in wage slavery was quite common. At the beginning of my research period in the 1830s and 1840s, the Chartists mainly accused the more bourgeois anti-slavery movement of hypocrisy, arguing that despite its advocacy for slaves worldwide, the movement ignored or at least overlooked the fact that workers in Britain themselves lived in dependency, or ‘wage slavery’. Of course, the image of the wage slave was always to some extent a metaphorical description, since direct and property-based slavery did not exist. On the other hand, workers—and especially migrant workers—in Britain experienced so many constraints that the image of the wage slave was not just an exaggeration, as historian David Northrup points out. He contends that ‘free’ workers (like forced migrants) were subject to economic, political, and social constraints; that labour law at the time could be harsh and unyielding; and that workers were severely punished—sometimes physically—for absenteeism and lateness.3 Despite constant improvements in working conditions, the metaphor of the wage slave resonated for a long time and is still relevant today in some labour contexts and trade unions.

Difficult questions still lie ahead for the project. Especially in the early British socialist labour movement, the image of the factory worker as a ‘white slave’ was very common and contrasted with the Black slave (sometimes accompanied by racist stereotypes such as laziness). What is needed here is a particular sensitivity in dealing with this self-assessment. How can and should the self-image of the ‘white slave’ be historically classified? Did it trivialize colonial slavery, which was based on direct ownership and disenfranchisement? Or should it be understood in the context of the dire working conditions under Manchester capitalism, where choosing freedom could mean starvation?

A reading room at The John Rylands Library, Manchester. Photograph by Michael D. Beckwith, licensed under a CC0 1.0 license.

During my two-month archival and research trip to the UK, which was kindly funded by the GHIL, I was able to sift through some fantastic holdings that proved very fruitful for my dissertation. The British Library in London holds letters, pamphlets, and estates produced by the Chartists, (early) socialists, and organizations such as the Socialist League (one of the forerunners of the Labour Party) and the Fabian Society. In the archives of the London School of Economics and Political Science, a collection on Chartism and sources on the British labour movement were invaluable. Finally, it was off to Manchester, first for a short but fruitful trip to the John Rylands Research Institute and Library, whose imposing Victorian building was incidentally built largely out of profits from the slave trade. (The picture shows the grand reading room.) Moreover, a wealth of Chartist newspapers can be found in the Labour History Archive & Study Centre of the People’s History Museum in Manchester. My trip concluded with a few weeks in the cosy study room of the Working Class Movement Library in Salford poring over sources on the connection between the Cotton Famine and slavery, as well as pamphlets against ‘wage slavery’ and the oppression of women. My time in London and Manchester was mainly spent deepening my understanding of the British socialist labour movement’s discourses on ‘slavery’ in the period 1830–90. I mostly examined texts, usually in the form of newspapers, letters, pamphlets, and estates. It has become clear that my work will not only be about slavery in the narrow sense, but will also have further implications for the analysis of gender and class, as the pamphlets against wage slavery and the oppression of women have shown.


The featured image shows a cropped detail from the illlustration ‘The Cotton Famine, Operatives waiting for their Breakfast in Mr Chapman’s Courtyard, Mottram, near Manchester’, printed in The Illustrated London News, 20 December 1862. Artwork in the public domain, provided by Wikimedia Commons.

  1. Abraham Lincoln, ‘To the Workingmen of Manchester, England’, Jan. 19, 1863, in Roy P. Basler, (ed.), The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 8 vols. (New Brunswick, 1953), vi, 63–5, at 64. []
  2. ‘Letter to Horace Greeley’, 2 Aug. 1862, in ibid. v, 388–9, at 388. []
  3. David Northrup, Indentured Labor in the Age of Imperialism, 1838–1922 (Cambridge, 1995). []

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Ole Merkel

He studied social sciences and political science at the universities of Bochum and Bologna. While his previous research has focused on the so-called 'guest worker football' (Gastarbeiterfußball) in West Germany and histories of Black and White populations in the United States, his current dissertation project at Ruhr-University Bochum deals with the intertwined history of the English and German labor movement and their relationship to abolitionism and slave emancipation.

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