The Genius of C.L.R. James: A Small Example

Having just finished teaching The Black Jacobins, I wanted to pay tribute to C.L.R. James’s genius by pointing to one short passage — namely, the first two sentences of the fourth chapter of that book:

The slaves worked on the land, and, like revolutionary peasants everywhere, they aimed at the extermination of their oppressors. But working and living together in gangs of hundreds on the huge sugar-factories which covered the North Plain, they were closer to a modern proletariat than any group of workers in existence at the time, and the rising was, therefore, a thoroughly prepared and organized mass movement.

In the space of a few lines, he demolishes the traditional Marxist view of slavery as some kind of pre-modern holdover, as well as the privileging of the industrial proletariat in the narrow sense. The plantations were already factories in the relevant sense, and far from representing an antiquated anachronism, the slaves in San Domingo were the most advanced by far of any group of workers in the world — making them the natural agent of revolution. And a few lines later, there comes the kicker: “Voodoo was the medium of the conspiracy.” Far from being a primitive superstition or a necessary opiate, the syncretistic religion improvised by the slave population was an integral part of their revolutionary movement.

This all happens elegantly and organically, without picking theoretical fights or dropping footnotes. James presents his major theoretical innovations as though they are the most obvious thing in the world.

2 thoughts on “The Genius of C.L.R. James: A Small Example

  1. In one sense, it’s useful to reexamine the role of slavery in the capitalist mode of production as producing exorbitant surplus-value within the plantation “factories.” In this sense, even orthodox Marxism would admit that slavery is “productive labor.” However, the usefulness in retaining the distinction between the factory workers under industrial capitalism and slaves on the plantation has to do with the relation between price (wages) and value. For Marx, there is the normal price that will reproduce labor, and then there is the minimal price that will allow the worker to subsist. Below this minimal price is what Marx refers to as the “usurpation” of labor-power. So it’s not necessarily that Marx or orthodox Marxism denigrates the role of slavery within the capitalist mode of production, as it too creates surplus-value as productive labor. It’s just that the analysis aimed at illuminating slavery’s logic within the process of valorization under the capitalist mode of production is different than that of the proletariat, whose labor is both productive and unproductive and whose price generally resides in the normal or minimal categories.

  2. Austin, in a way couldn’t the price of a slave be understood as basically minimal rather than below or “usurped”? If the slave population was reproduced and even increased, one could say that they were given the “necessary” value of reproduction but just not the discretion over it, so to speak, maybe?I guess they’d be on the very low end or below of whatever portion of “necessary” labor is negotiated by the proletariat but otherwise slaves could be seen to function as a proletariat, the aberration would be not in the price of reproduction as much as in the fact that their labor was “unfree” in the sense that it couldn’t negotiate its own conditions or migrate from firm to firm, or contribute to the “surplus labor army” which keeps wages down either I suppose.

    Sorry, I haven’t really thought about this much. I don’t know how important it is to put all this in the most literalist Marxist terms…

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