The Price of Slavery

Against the Current, No. 224, May/June 2023

Christopher McAuley

The Price of Slavery:
Capitalism and Revolution in the Caribbean
By Nick Nesbitt
Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2022, 274 pages, $35 paperback.

IN THE PRICE of Slavery: Capitalism and Revolution in the Caribbean, Nick Nesbitt continues his exploration of “Black Jacobinism” or the “political deployment of the idea of undivided equality in defense of popular sovereignty,” inspired by C.L.R. James’ classic study of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins.

A professor of French and Italian at Princeton University, Nesbitt began his focus on Caribbean studies in Universal Emancipation: The Haitian Revolution and the Radical Enlightenment (2008) and followed with Antillean Critique (2013).

In The Price of Slavery, Nesbitt focuses on the “francophone Caribbean critique of social structure, from plantation slavery and the Haitian Revolution to the neocolonial present, as a tropical reconfiguration of Marx’s thought.” (2)

This critique includes the writings of Toussaint Louverture, Henry Christophe, C.L.R. James, Aime Cesaire, Jacques Stephen Alexis, and Suzanne Cesaire. The social structure in question is the “colonial variant of the capitalist social form” that was “left latent or unrecognized in Marx’s own thought.” (103)

Nesbitt further sets himself the task of “propos[ing] an original theory of the relation of slavery and capitalism.” There is an understandable endeavor considering the place of the two in the Caribbean’s history and historical legacy. (2)

Enslaved and Waged Labor

Nesbitt divides the study into two title-clarifying halves, “From Marx…” and “… To Black Jacobinism.” The first chapter is his review of older and more recent work on the relationship between capitalism and slavery, primarily from the vantage point of whether the specific scholar has respected Marx’s distinction between the labor of people whose labor power is commodified — as in the case of wage-earners — and that of those whose entire persons have been commodified, as with enslaved people.

Nesbitt takes to task several scholars including Eric Williams, Sven Beckert, Edward Baptist, Robin Blackburn, Charles Post and Dale Tomich, for failing to properly understand the “historically entangled yet analytically distinct” systems of capitalism and slavery. (3)

Nesbitt explains the basis of the distinction between these labor regimes in what is essentially a Marxist primer that extends into the second chapter, “Reading Capital in the Caribbean.” It boils down to price(s): “To count as a value in the capitalist social form, a concrete object or service must necessarily, by definition, have an exchange value, a value that can and must be manifested in the form of a price.” (47)

Thus, if we follow prices as our visible guide to compare wage-earning with enslaved labor the difference becomes clear: While enslaved people are priced, so to speak, at the current and future value of their entire persons, wage-earners are priced according to the amount of labor they can provide an employer in a given pay period.

The differences in how and for what these two types of workers are monetarily assessed has a calculable result in the wage-labor case, as we know from Marx. Wages and the prices of the specific goods created by wage labor allow us (subtracting various overhead costs), to estimate the monetary value of the excess labor that the wage earners have transferred to the commodities they produce which is not reflected in their pay.

This surplus value, as Marx termed it, is the very value that cannot be realized through enslaved labor. In not having a distinct value for enslaved labor, separate from that of the enslaved person’s total price, we cannot determine the amount of labor that was necessary to produce a unit of a commodity, nor the amount of the enslaved worker’s excess labor embodied in that unit of production.

It was for this reason, not because he did not recognize the economic importance of enslaved labor, that Marx placed it in the category of constant capital, like land, livestock and machinery, rather than into that of variable capital, as he did wage labor.

The “concrete labor slaves perform,” remarks Nesbitt on this point, “may be useful for the slaveowner (producing profitable commodities), but lacking a commodified form (as what Marx will call labor power), it cannot appear as a value within the capitalist social form.” (78)

The Capitalist Social Form

In addition to his emphasis on the distinction between surplus value-creating wage labor and the necessarily unrecognized economic contribution of enslaved labor in capitalist accounting, the basis of Nesbitt’s critique of many scholars who theorize the relationship between slavery and capitalism is that they pay insufficient attention to the predominant capitalist social form of labor.

Nesbitt defines the social form of labor as the “modalities by which private, individual acts of labor are socially recognized and validated in any given society,” and certainly prefers it to “mode of production,” a term he generally avoids.

The capitalist social form, as we have already suggested, is characterized by commodity production performed by workers whose labor power is commodified in the form of monetary wages and who exchange their earnings for commodities sold on markets. By contrast, the social form of enserfed and non-capitalist enslaved labor is “direct, unmediated domination,” exercised by landlords and slaveowners without the intermediaries of monetary payment or exchange. (169)

Having established quite literally the terms of the question, Nesbitt then offers his suggestions on how to understand and situate enslaved labor in relation to the capitalist social form of labor — the means by which slaveowners realize profits from the sale of slave-cultivated commodities to metropolitan manufacturers, whose own surplus value-extracting processing operations of those commodities afford them profits and the money with which to purchase more slave-cultivated commodities.

In somewhat more abstract terms, Nesbitt describes the relationship between enslavement and capitalism like this:

“[W]hat the slave… produces for the capitalist slaveowner is… a concrete commodity (sugar, cotton) the exchange value (price) of which… upon successful sale, allows the owner of that commodity to realize an average rate of profit (on sugar and cotton). This profit constitutes surplus value captured and distributed… to the capitalist slaveowner via market sale from a total mass of value in the system as a whole.” (52-53)

This Marxist perspective, Nesbitt argues, “clearly allows for the conceptualization of the qualitative and necessary, if tendentially diminishing, place of slave labor in capitalism.” (44)

Haitian Revolution and Labor Form

Nesbitt devotes two of the three chapters that comprise the “… To Black Jacobinism” half of The Price of Slavery to his theorization of the Haitian Revolution, and to the struggle over the alternative social form of labor that would prevail in post-revolutionary Haitian society.

Nesbitt opens these discussions with a tribute to and analysis of C.L.R. James’ exemplary study of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins. In this work by a “veritable Galileo of revolutionary historiography,” Nesbitt asserts, James demolished racist assumptions and inscribed the Haitian Revolution in the annals of the world’s “great revolutions” through evocative historical reconstructions and “radiant” prose. (127)

James’ work is not without its inconsistencies, however. The Black Jacobins subscribes to the formula “insurgent masses + leader(s) of genius + force of the idea (of equality) yields world-historical revolution” to structure the Haitian Revolution. But in James’ chronicle of the French Revolution in the same work, he presents it as a “headless” revolution “of anonymous French masses… devoid of any notable leadership.” (113, 120)

Nesbitt proposes that James could have resolved this interpretive tension between the determination of strong leadership and the agency of the masses by highlighting a factor in the revolutionary process that he already recognized: the necessity of alliances between mobilized masses and “radical elements of the middle classes and elites” to ensure revolutionary success. (124)

“James had available in 1938,” Nesbitt argues, “ample historical material to build a case every bit as strong for the French Revolution as an alliance between the masses and a radical left intellectual leadership as for the Haitian and Russian cases.” (125)

Nesbitt returns more directly to the question of the social form of labor during and after the Haitian Revolution in the fourth chapter of The Price of Slavery. In this instance, Nesbitt’s focus is on the conflicts rather than the unifying goals between the self-emancipating masses and the “radical” leadership of the revolution.

Whereas the latter were committed to the restoration of the plantation economy albeit sans slavery, the formerly enslaved people envisioned liberation in the redistribution of plantation landholdings, the legal security of their property, and the cultivation of subsistence crops. It was the plantation versus the provision grounds.

The compromise, which was the first of many social compromises between upholders of the plantation regime and the formerly enslaved who were subjected to that institution, was a sharecropping system that initially rewarded agricultural workers between a quarter and a third of the cane crop or cane syrup, before transitioning a monetary sum as payment.

Nesbitt refers to the various legal compendia of Sonthonax, Polverel, and Henry — drawn up in the immediate aftermaths of revolutionary France’s first abolition (of slavery) decree and revolutionary Haiti’s final one — as attempts to resuscitate the plantation economy and convince recently self-emancipated people that the new terms of sugarcane cultivation differed from those that operated under slavery, despite similarities in the actual work.

In this context, Nesbitt returns to a discussion of James’ use of the word “proletariat” in The Black Jacobins and suggests that it might more accurately describe the new circumstances of the recently emancipated.

In a famous passage in that work, James asserted that Saint Domingue’s enslaved plantation workers were “closer to a modern proletariat than any group of workers in existence at the time,” a clear reference to the coordination and rhythm of their work (especially at harvest and boiling time) that could be easily channeled into military organization.

Rather than in the active and managed employment of enslaved labor, however, Nesbitt sees greater cause to use “proletariat” to describe Haiti’s formerly enslaved when they won their release from the plantation’s clutches.

Their relative freedom, Nesbitt argues, recalls Marx’s occasional use of “proletariat” to denote, not the industrial worker as he typically intended it, but those who, like the English peasantry, had been driven from the land but whose labor power was not yet commodified.

From this meaning of proletariat, Nesbitt proposes that we conceive of the Haitian citizenry as proletarian in the years from 1791-1820, and the Haitian social labor form as non-commodified labor power.

Against Industrial Romanticism

Nesbitt concludes The Price of Slavery with critiques of Aime Cesaire’s social democratic and Jacques Stephen Alexis’s communist romanticization of industrial wage work, and praise of Suzanne Cesaire’s ecofeminism.

 In many regards, this ending is a return to the point with which Nesbitt opens the study. A clear understanding of the capitalist social form of labor helps not only to distinguish it from enslaved labor, but also to dispel any belief that it can be repurposed for progressive ends. As Nesbitt underscores, this lesson was apparently lost on many socialist revolutionaries.

The latter, in the understandable desire to improve the material conditions of their working populations, embraced state-sponsored industrial programs that introduced or expanded wage work, in the belief that “increasing production output on the capitalist model” could fund social programs to redress the very inequities that capitalism produces. (171)

Such were the bases of Aime Cesaire’s repeated calls for metropolitan France to expand industry in Martinique, and presumably Jacques Stephen Alexis’s paeans to the “infinite promise of liberating, transformational [industrial] work” in especially his chef d’oeuvre, Compere General Soleil. (182)

In contrast to these projections of minimally exploitative and alienating wage labor, Suzanne Cesaire, in her fittingly titled essay-work The Great Camouflage, was the rare voice who took issue with the industrial vision both for its limited perspective on human labor and its disregard for the natural world.

In his tribute to Suzanne Cesaire’s intervention, Nesbitt states that she “voices an insurgent poetics of the human animal, the human thing as one mere thing among all the things of nature, a quasi-Spinozist vision of a vital natural order without priority of any element over another.” (186) It’s unfortunate that Nesbitt devotes a mere four pages to Cesaire’s vision.

In The Price of Slavery, Nick Nesbitt provides a rich and generative study that compels us to rethink several important theoretical, economic, historiographical and political questions and debates which are of relevance to more than just the historical and contemporary Caribbean. The work, however, only marginally corresponds to Nesbitt’s stated aim of exploring how a group of “Black Jacobin Marxist thinkers tropicalize Marx.” (3)

Except for his discussion of C.L.R. James’ The Black Jacobins, the study can be more aptly described as a Marxist assessment of scholarship on slavery’s relationship to capitalism, and of the political-economic agendas pursued by Haiti’s leaders during and after the Haitian Revolution, and by select figures in the mid- to late 20th century francophone Caribbean. Again, in the treatment of these themes Nesbitt is highly successful.

But in a work that claims to focus on how Marxist writers from the francophone Caribbean and, with the necessary inclusion of James, Marxist writers from the anglophone Caribbean, have engaged with Marx on the topics at the core of The Price of Slavery, Nesbitt should have devoted some portion of his study to a discussion of their positions. As much as I normally refrain from making prescriptive statements, considering Nesbitt’s professed intentions it seems fair to point out where and how he did not fulfill them.

May-June 2023, ATC 224

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