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.