Verso, £20, 498pp. £18 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The American Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights, By Robin Blackburn

If the thousands of historians who have written about Atlantic slavery and its abolition, only a handful have ever given us a really original perspective on that vast subject. Even fewer have proposed a satisfying, or stimulating, general theory about it, an attempt at explaining the rise, fall and enduring consequences of the entire New World slave system across the centuries and continents. Robin Blackburn is prominent – even pre-eminent – among those few. He has tackled the task in a formidable body of work beginning in the late 1980s; but in a rather idiosyncratic way.

He began, in 1988, with The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, then moved backwards to analyse the origins of the system whose demise he had already dissected, in The Making of New World Slavery in 1997. Now, in The American Crucible, he broadens the focus still further, surveying the whole career of modern slave systems from the 16th century to near the end of the 19th, embracing not only their demise in the British and French colonial worlds, but also the later course of abolition in Cuba and Brazil. It's too rarely remembered that slavery there only ended in 1886 and 1888 respectively.

Thus we can now see the three books, Overthrow, Making and Crucible, as a trilogy, a coherent and imposing unity – albeit not one apparently pre-planned. The achievement and originality lie in Blackburn's insistence on the crucial interrelation among slavery, colonialism and capitalism, seeking to map the different modes of production, of colonisation, and of enslavement on to one another. New World slavery was, Blackburn urges, a product – a central, not incidental, one – of the rise of capitalist modernity.

Insisting on the word "capitalist" here is not an empty political gesture, or a vague bow to Blackburn's Marxist background. However much Blackburn's work draws from and debates with a range of theorists and historians, including some conservative ones, he continues to maintain the indispensability of Marx's central insights.

Equally, the stress on modernity is not – as in so much social theory and political rhetoric – some contentless invocation of things-in-general-since-whenever, but an important reminder that even in their last stages, New World slave systems and their defenders were not archaic throwbacks but dynamic forces.

Not only was slavery at the heart of early modernity, but it was crucial to the global growth of commerce and industry. The argument first developed in the 1930s by Eric Williams, that profits from the New World plantations drove Britain's industrial revolution, has been much criticised if not wholly overturned ever since. Blackburn concedes that it can now be upheld only in radically modified form. Nonetheless, it was in the plantations of the Americas at least as much as the factories of Old or New England that contemporary forms of labour organisation and discipline were pioneered.

Among slaveholders and their apologists, seemingly antiquated ideologies of paternalism coexisted with innovation and experimentation, in warring contradictions. Their opponents too – whether white abolitionists or rebellious slaves – espoused an ever-shifting mix of ideas. Some strove to recover a lost past of imagined freedom, some upheld ideas of "free labour" - which to their critics like Marx simply meant substituting wage slavery for the chattel kind. Only a few believed in universal liberty, let alone human and racial equality.

It follows near-inevitably that there was no smooth or preordained progress towards general liberty, but a "spiral path" with partial and ambiguous victories, bloody setbacks, mixed motives, and clashing blocs of economic and social power. Emancipation came only through or after revolution – Blackburn's fourth keyword alongside capitalism, colonialism, and slavery itself – or, as in North America, through cataclysmic civil war.

Here Blackburn follows recent work by historians like Michel-Rolph Trouillot and Laurent Dubois, who have argued for a dramatic reappraisal of the significance of the Haitian revolution in the 1790s. However miserable Haiti's post-independence fate may seem – a story of poverty, dictatorship, instability, disaster both natural and man-made – it was in many ways just as important as America's and France's immediately preceding upheavals. In winning their freedom, Haiti's slaves, unlike American or French revolutionaries and equally unlike all but a tiny minority of European abolitionists, placed truly egalitarian ideals firmly on a global agenda.

There they remain, still contested, still to be attained – and not only because of the multiple forms of bondage and unfree labour which, as Blackburn rightly reminds us, persist and even proliferate today. The new conceptions of human rights and democracy forged in the era of Atlantic revolution and abolition continue to challenge us, from Detroit to Damascus to Dorking.

So Blackburn reconnects his historical argument with the contemporary political concerns which have always energised his other career as veteran New Left activist. His interpretation of Atlantic slavery and its end intertwines with current debates on democracy and discourses of human rights. Some of those connections are more disturbing than affirmative, challenging the acquisitive individualism of much "rights talk", or showing how the rhetoric of liberation can be betrayed in the service of power. This is perhaps the least fully developed of Blackburn's diverse arguments. His remarks on recent writings about human rights by figures like Samuel Moyn, Regis Debray and Slavoj Zizek seem almost like hastily inserted afterthoughts – but at least underlines that The American Crucible poses a challenge for the political future as well as a bold reappraisal of the historical past.

Stephen Howe is professor of post-colonial history and culture at Bristol University

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