The Unfree

Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study.
by Orlando Patterson.
Harvard University Press. 511 pp. $30.00.

Slavery, this book demonstrates, far from being a “peculiar institution,” comes very close to being, along with kinship and religion, a universal one. “There is no region on earth that has not at some time harbored the institution. Probably there is no group of people whose ancestors were not at one time slaves or slaveholders.” Moreover, slavery has been not only compatible with but indispensable to some of the greatest, most creative civilizations in world history.

Despite the abundance of scholarly writing on slavery during the past several decades, until now no serious work has been addressed to its global dimension. Orlando Patterson, who is a professor of sociology at Harvard and the author of a highly regarded study of slavery in the Caribbean, deals with slavery in all the types of society in which it has been present—pre-literate, Asian, and Western European, from ancient Greece to the American South. Although I have reservations about a few of his concepts and generalizations, I have none about the book’s major contribution, which is the assembling in logical and readable form of data drawn from dozens of cultures and civilizations. This is a work of solid scholarship that will undoubtedly stand a long time before any effort is made to supersede it.



Two major types of slavery are distinguished by Patterson. The first is found in societies in which “slavery attained marked structural significance, ranging from those in which it was important for cultural, economic, or political reasons, or a combination of all three, through those in which it was critical though not definitive, to those in which it was the determinative institution.” These are the societies on which the greatest abundance of information exists; they include ancient Greece and Rome, the deep South in the United States prior to the Civil War, many of the Arabic cultures, the African states of the Sudan, the Caribbean nations (whether under Spanish or British rule), Thailand, and Korea. As Patterson shows us in detail, there have been a great many such societies in world history.

The second kind of slave society is one in which slavery, though highly visible, does not play such a strong institutional role as in the first. It is more of an eddy than a main current. Why study slavery in such a small compass? Patterson’s answer is interesting: “If one confines oneself to major cases only, to the structurally important cases, one remains unable to answer what is perhaps the most serious structural problem, namely how and under what conditions the process in question ceases being unimportant and becomes important.” Among the many examples of small-scale slavery dealt with are the Hebrews of the Kingdom of Judah, the Aztecs, the Comanche Indians, the Ifugao of the Philippines, and the Ibo of central Nigeria.

There is one form of slavery that Patterson should not have omitted: the penal slave systems of the totalitarian states of the 20th century. The Soviet Union leads them, and has done so since the very beginning of Soviet Communism. What Lenin commenced, Stalin brought to fullness. Patterson does deal with penal slavery, and refers to its incidence in 17th- and 18th-century Russia, but that slavery was moderate compared with the Gulag Archipelago. Moreover, totalitarian penal slavery meets most of Patterson’s criteria for the identification of the phenomenon: the ruthless uprooting of individuals from normal existence and condemnation to slave labor under limitless power; the forced separation of individuals from all contact with families and neighborhoods; absolute segregation from the social order; and the relentless degradation of persons and the destruction of individual identity—in short, the calculated manufacture of non-persons. If, as Patterson believes, the metaphor of “social death” is useful in the understanding of historic slave societies, it is no less useful in our appreciation of the lot of the tens of millions of Russians and others who have been forced into a horrifying oblivion for alleged crimes against the state.



One of the greatest achievements of Patterson’s book is the rigorous comparative method. He is no pseudo-evolutionist, using comparison for the sole purpose of contriving balloonlike stages or epochs through which “mankind” is said to have evolved. For Patterson, the purpose of comparison is to illuminate the analysis of some distinctive feature of slavery, and thus make it possible to discern genuine types of slavery and the varied mechanisms within them.

Three elements are, for Patterson, vital in true slavery. Each corresponds to a facet of domination generally—the larger social category in which he locates slavery—and is vivid wherever slavery is found. The first element is force or coercion, exerted whenever it is needed. Absolute power over the slave may be muted, camouflaged, or trivialized by a given master, but it is always there, waiting to be used. Second is what Patterson calls “natal alienation”: alienation, that is, from all the rights and immunities enjoyed by members of the social order; alienation indeed from life in the full social and cultural sense. The third element is the loss of honor, or rather the subjection of the slave to a perpetual process of “dishonoring.” The slave can have no honor in the historic sense of the word because of the origin of his status, but most of all, Patterson stresses, because he is utterly without power in society save through his master.

Thus honor and power are inseparable. Patterson is well aware of the ostensible exceptions to this pattern, and gives substantial treatment to the eunuchoid slaves who at various times, as in the Ottoman empire, have exercised extraordinary power directly over individuals, indeed over masses of subjects. He is aware too of the seemingly privileged place slaves can have, as in the status of longtime house servant, of craftsman, artist, and musician, even in the deep South where slavery was perhaps more potent a force and less trammeled by any protective law than even in ancient Rome. The literature of comedy in the ancient world has a full share of portraits of the pampered, fawned-upon slave, male and female, and of the sly ways in which the slave, technically under domination by master, is in fact the master of the master. And, finally, Patterson registers his understanding of the kinds of limitation upon complete domination of one being by another which Hegel highlighted, followed by Georg Simmel in his magisterial study of superordination and subordination, a work Patterson makes little use of though it is highly pertinent to his main argument.

But these apparent exceptions or inconsistencies notwithstanding, the fact remains, as Patterson argues forcefully, that they can only mask the residual power that is confirmed by law and custom for the master alone, a power that can at any time be activated to terminate completely whatever limited powers and privileges may have been conferred upon a slave.

In many ways the most provocative and perhaps controversial element in Slavery and Social Death is the author’s contention that slavery has been indispensable not only to the great civilizations of the past where it flourished but also to the rise of ideas of freedom. We commonly assume, Patterson argues, that slavery by its very nature could have nothing to do with freedom. But it was the existence of two classes of people, those in slavery and those not, that first led to stirrings of recognition of something that might be thought of as freedom. Moreover, in the act of freeing a slave, of making a freedman of him, as in ancient Greece, the vital difference between being unfree and free was dramatized; in time, contemplation of this difference evolved into the awareness of freedom.

Patterson states the paradox:

Before slavery people simply could not have conceived of the thing we call freedom. Men and women in premodern, non-slave-holding societies did not, could not, value the removal of a restraint as an ideal. Individuals yearned only for the security of being positively anchored in a network of power and authority. . . . The first men and women to struggle for freedom, the first to think of themselves as free in the only meaningful sense of the term, were freedmen. And without slavery there would have been no freedom.

We arrive then at a strange and bewildering enigma: are we to esteem slavery for what it has wrought, or must we challenge our conception of freedom and the value we place upon it?

But all this is surely too much to claim for slavery and liberation from slavery. There are other, far more substantial and widespread historical forces involved in the rise of awareness of freedom. There is, to begin with, the absolute authority of the household father in ancient times, the power to which the Romans gave the label, patria potestas. Among Greeks, Romans, and a good many other peoples this power was fundamental, extending as it did to matters of life and death. There were times, as in war, when sons knew the undoubtedly heady experience of liberation from the patria potestas, and frequent experience of this kind must have had more than a little to do with the evolution of the consciousness of freedom. Even more important, perhaps, was religion, and claims by innumerable peoples of rights to worship their own gods.

The concept of rights, especially religious rights, is vital to the emergence of the separate but closely related idea of freedom. To be given or otherwise to win the right to one’s own religious practices is, in substance at least, to be given or to win the freedom to worship as one desires. I do not question the argument that liberation from slavery generated, in the minds of those liberated, some awareness, however dim, of freedom. But it is not necessary to endow slavery with the unique capacity of being the setting or necessary prelude to the human consciousness of freedom. To answer the question with which Patterson concludes his book, we are not at all obliged to “esteem slavery for what it has wrought”; we may continue to loathe it and regard it as an ugly blot on human history. Nor are we in any respect obliged to “challenge our conception of freedom and the value we place upon it.”

+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link