Blackburn, Robin 1940-
BLACKBURN, Robin 1940-
PERSONAL: Born March 6, 1940, in Camberley, Surrey, England; son of Raymond and Barbara Blackburn. Education: London School of Economics and Political Science (London, England), B.Sc., 1965; graduate study at Nuffield College, Oxford, 1965-67. Politics: Socialist.
ADDRESSES: Offıce—Department of Sociology, University of Essex, Colchester C04 3SQ, England. E-mail—[email protected]
CAREER: London School of Economics and Political Science, London, England, lecturer in sociology, 1967-69; Polytechnic of Central London, London, lecturer in sociology, 1976-88; University of Essex, Colchester, England, became professor. New Left Books (publisher; now Verso), London, consulting editor, 1970—; New Left Review, London, member of editorial committee, 1962—, editor, 1981-89. Visiting professor at Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, 1974, 1976, and 1978. Honorary fellow, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London, 1988—; fellow, Woodrow Wilson/International Center for Scholars, Washington DC, 1993-94; academic appointments at FLACSO (Latin American Social Science Faculty), Quito, Ecuador, 1994-95, and King's College, Cambridge, England, 1998-99; New School University, New York, NY, distinguished visiting professor of historical studies.
AWARDS, HONORS: Banking on Death, or, Investing in Life: The History and Future of Pensions was named one of the best books of 2002 by the Los Angeles Times Book Review.
(Editor, with Perry Anderson) Towards Socialism, Collins (London, England), 1965, Cornell University Press (Ithaca, NY), 1966.
(Editor, with Alexander Cockburn) The Incompatibles: Trade Union Militancy and the Consensus, Penguin/New Left Review (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England), 1967.
(Editor, with Alexander Cockburn) Student Power; Problems, Diagnosis, Action, Penguin/New Left Review (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England), 1969.
(Editor and author of introduction) Strategy for Revolution, (essays translated from the French) Cape (London, England), 1970.
(Editor) Ideology in Social Science, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 1972.
(Editor) Explosion in a Subcontinent: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Ceylon, Penguin/New Left Review (Baltimore, MD), 1975.
(Editor) Revolution and Class Struggle: A Reader in Marxist Politics, Fontana (London, England), 1977, Humanities Press (Atlantic Highlands, NJ), 1978.
The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 1776-1848, Verso (New York, NY), 1988.
(Editor) After the Fall: The Collapse of Communism and the Future of Socialism, Verso (New York, NY), 1991.
The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492-1800, Verso (New York, NY), 1997.
Banking on Death, or, Investing in Life: The History and Future of Pensions, Verso (New York, NY), 2002.
Contributor to books and to periodicals, including the Nation and the Guardian.
WORK IN PROGRESS: A book titled Nemesis of the Slave Power: The Fate of Slavery in the Nineteenth Century Americas, 1815-88.
SIDELIGHTS: Robin Blackburn's writings are concerned with the forces that shape economic and power relationships between groups of people. He has written extensively on the role of slavery in the modern world, as well as on socialism, communism, and capitalism—and the tensions between them. His studies of slavery take an economic approach, too, dealing with the institution's effect on commerce. His two books on slavery form "a magnificent work of contemporary scholarship," in the opinion of Nation contributor Eric Foner. Blackburn's other works explore topics such as the collapse of the Soviet Union and the pressures on pension systems in capitalist nations.
Blackburn's first book on slavery, The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 1776-1848, deals with slave revolts and abolitionist movements against a background of justifications made for slavery in an age that held a high regard for liberty—at least for whites. American independence fighters, for instance, loved freedom on the one hand and tolerated slavery on the other, "a sad commentary on our ability to tailor political ideals to our commercial interests," observed John Mortimer, reviewing the book for the London Times. While some of the era's thinkers saw no workable answer to the slavery question, there were many principled and devoted abolitionists among free people and brave rebels among slaves, but putting belief into practice was difficult. Some abolitionists wanted to avoid being seen as excessively bold or would back off when their pocketbooks were threatened; and at least one leader of a slave uprising, Haiti's François-Dominique Toussaint-Louverture, became a tyrant in his own right. Mortimer wished the volume had more "dramatic set pieces and more personal and illuminating studies of the remarkable characters concerned," but he found it "still an important book."
Blackburn went from dealing with the processes and difficulties involved in ending slavery to exploring the institution's development in The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492-1800. He presents slavery as crucial to the economic development of the Americas and the prosperity of European colonial powers. He asserts that "slavery was a byproduct of the quest for profit," explained Foner in the Nation. Blackburn also endorses the controversial theory "that the profits of the slave plantations did much to finance British industrialism," Foner added.
According to Los Angeles Times Book Review critic Peter Kolchin, "Blackburn marshals impressive evidence to support this conviction," with data on the importance of colonial slave societies as both producers of agricultural goods and consumers of manufactured ones. The book does not, Kolchin continued "end the debate over the relationship between slavery and capitalism, but it does provide new life to an influential thesis under heavy attack." In the view of Barbara L. Solow, writing in the Journal of Interdisciplinary History, "Blackburn makes his case well." Further, she commented, "The book will be valuable and stimulating, even to those who disagree with its conclusions." Marika Sherwood, reviewing the book for History Today, questioned whether Blackburn's focus on economics would "illuminate our understanding of slavery," particularly the lives of enslaved people. She credited him, however, with being unafraid to look at what he himself described as "the dark side of progress."
To Foner, The Making of New World Slavery "constitutes a welcome corrective to the fashionable view that free markets automatically promote social justice" and offers insights relevant to the present day, when "Chinatown sweatshops and Third World child labor factories are the functional equivalents of colonial slavery in that the demands of the consumer and the profit drive of the entrepreneur overwhelm the rights of those whose labor actually produces the salable commodity." Blackburn also, Foner noted, shows a "remarkable command of the voluminous literature on slavery." From this literature, Kolchin remarked, Blackburn has "brought together diverse strands of historical research and woven them into a compelling story," one that is "fascinating if densely presented." Graham Russell Hodges, a contributor to the Journal of American Ethnic History, described the book as a "beautifully written" work that "can be used as a standard on Atlantic slavery."
Blackburn turns to issues facing modern-day laborers in Banking on Death, or, Investing in Life: The History and Future of Pensions. He makes a case that private—that is, company-sponsored—pension funds, in both the United States and Europe, have been mismanaged by the executives overseeing the investments, resulting in uncertainty that workers will have sufficient retirement income. He discourages government-financed pension funds from pursuing privatization, and he offers suggestions on how to augment and safeguard retirement funds in general. Corporations, he says, should be required to contribute a portion of their profits to their pension funds and to a national public pension fund, such as the U.S. Social Security program. Also, he argues that pension funds' investment management should be taken out of the hands of the financial services industry and turned over to groups that represent the future retirees' interests and would invest in pursuit of social as well as financial goals. Blackburn looks in addition at how the concept of pensions developed; for instance, nineteenth-century German chancellor Otto von Bismarck thought pensions would give the common people an interest in the prevailing order and thus discourage revolutions.
Martin Vander Meyer, reviewing the book for the Spectator, thought Blackburn made his arguments with "force and fluency" but that "his description of what has gone wrong from time to time in the past is a good deal more persuasive than his elaboration of what he thinks should happen next." Blackburn's ideas about investing for social goals, Vander Meyer commented, constitute "misguided leftist nostalgia." Similarly, an Economist critic deemed Blackburn's historical overview "excellent" but his proposals for change "radical." Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Kevin Phillips, though, while finding some of Blackburn's ideas "a little naive," given that the financial services industry's influence on public policy could stand in the way of pension reform, nevertheless related that "his more sweeping proposals reflect the more advanced discussion in Britain and have a potential to be relevant on this side of the Atlantic as well." New Statesman reviewer George Lucas, meanwhile, praised Blackburn as making a "trenchant" contribution to the political debate over pension policy.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Economist (U.S. edition), August 31, 2002, "Matters of Life and Death."
History Today, January, 1999, Marika Sherwood, review of The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492-1800, p. 55.
Journal of American Ethnic History, fall, 1999, Graham Russell Hodges, "Early Modern Slavery in the 1990s," p. 67.
Journal of Interdisciplinary History, summer, 1998, Barbara L. Solow, review of The Making of New World Slavery, p. 128.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 16, 1997, Peter Kolchin, "How the West Got Rich," p. 11; September 15, 2002, Kevin Phillips, "It's Pensions, Stupid!," p. 5.
Nation, March 31, 1997, Eric Foner, review of The Making of New World Slavery, p. 25.
New Statesman, July 8, 2002, George Lucas, "In Funds We Trust," p. 51.
New York Review of Books, March 30, 1989.
Spectator, August 3, 2002, Martin Vander Meyer, "Taking a Second Look," p. 37.
Times (London, England), May 8, 1998, John Mortimer, "Selective Dining at the Human Rights Banquet."
Times Literary Supplement, June 17, 1988; May 2, 1997.*