Thinking Dialectically About Slavery

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
January 30, 2019

“It is impossible completely to understand Marx’s Capital…without having thoroughly studied and understood the whole of Hegel’s Logic.”

—V. I. Lenin quoted in C. L. R. James, Notes on Dialectics

Dr. Selwyn R. CudjoeOn Monday the Sugar and Slavery Gallery of London Museum Docklands invited me to be a panelist in a seminar, “London’s Debt to and Involvement with Slavery.” The other panelist, Dr. Kate Donington, Co-Curator of the Slavery, Culture and Collecting display at the Museum, spoke about George Hibbert, a slave owner in Jamaica and a hugely influential presence in eighteenth-century Jamaica and London.

The Museum of London Docklands, as Melissa Bennett and Kristy Warren explained in a recent essay, “Looking Back and Facing Forward,” played a significant role in the West India trade. Funded by sugar merchants, slave-owners and other London businessmen, “This warehouse was built to store sugar.” The room in which I spoke stored the heavier barrels of Muscovado sugar that Orange Grove Sugar Estates in Tacarigua produced until the end of the nineteenth century.

Muscovado sugar is a type of partially refined sugar that has strong molasses content, from which Trinidadians make tolum, a creole delicacy. The vacuum pan, a more efficient process, results in the greater crystallization of the cane juice, thereby producing a higher yield of sugar. It was introduced at Orange Grove around 1897. Speaking in that room brought back memories of the musky molasses scent of the factory mill.

Bennett and Warren say that London “was also an important center for opposition to, and support for the abolitionists’ campaign against the trade of enslaved Africans and slavery more generally. Africans living in London, such as Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano, lobbied in the capital’s daily papers, including The Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser, through their organization, the Sons of Africa.”

Equiano carried on his work around the London docks. During the twentieth century, freedom fighters such as C. L. R. James, Paul Robeson, George Padmore, Kwame Nkrumah and Nnamdi Azikiwe followed in the footsteps of Equiano and Cugoano when they did their anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist work in London and elsewhere.

James first saw the outline of my case against William Hardin Burnley in London at his Brixton home in 1983 in my book, Movement of the People. I had hoped to write a book on James but wound up coediting C. L. R. James: His Intellectual Legacies (1995) with William Cain.

I did not ask James how he felt about my essay, “Slavery, Colonialism, Independence: Same Khaki Pants,” where I outlined my tentative arguments against Burnley. In our two-day interview we discussed his work in a chronological manner, from Minty Alley (1936) to his manifesto on Walter Rodney. He argued that Rodney, a brilliant scholar, had moved too quickly in Guyana. That interview was shown on Trinidad and Tobago Television.

James also insisted that his Notes on Dialectics would turn out to be his most important book. He was proud of his engagement with Marxism, Hegelian dialectics and his translation of Boris Souvarine’s Stalin: A Critical Survey of Bolshevism (1939), from French to English. He complained: “I don’t think that young scholars today care much about theory.”

In November, Duke University Press published Marxism, Colonialism, and Cricket, an edited collection that celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of James’s Beyond a Boundary. It contains fourteen articles, two of which are written by Sir Hilary Beckles and yours truly.

In “My Journey to James: Cricket, Caribbean Identity and Cricket Writing,” Sir Hilary recalls: “I once asked him [James] whether he was aware that young black audiences felt uncomfortable with his apparent obsession with Europe’s philosophical traditions. ‘If they cannot appreciate this tradition,’ he said, ‘never will they know their own.'”

This reminiscence contains two important ideas: James believed that Western philosophy helps us to understand our condition better. More important, one cannot understand slavery, a socio-economic formation, if one does not understand the role the plantocracy, mostly white, played in its making. That is why James begins Black Jacobins with the activities of the planter class and why W. E. B. Du Bois does a similar thing in Black Reconstruction.

To understand capitalism it is essential to understand the interrelationship between the capitalist and worker. This is what Hegel meant when he popularized the term “dialectics” and which Marx used as one of the central pillars in his discussion of capitalism. There can be no slavery without the slave master as there can be no feudalism without an account of what the lords did.

This is why what happened at London docks is tied up with what took place on the sugar estates of Trinidad and Jamaica. But according to one observer it is not necessary to read about slave masters to understand how slavery worked in these islands.

Other scholars such as Professor Joan Anim-Addo, chairman of the Centre for Caribbean & Diasporic Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London, sees The Slave Master of Trinidad as a welcome addition to the historical/literary canon which is why she invited me to speak at her university on January 30. She writes: “My heartfelt congratulations to you. Every bit of that history is very much appreciated.” Then she invites me, at my lecture, “to reflect upon the writings of the life of William Harding Burnley, its challenges and meanings for the present.”

Professor Anim-Addo attended Monday’s talk. She prompted Donington and me to make connections between the legacies of slave owners like Burnley and Hibbert and present-day social injustices whose effects are still being felt across London and the Caribbean.

This is an intellectually healthy way to examine these matters.

One thought on “Thinking Dialectically About Slavery”

  1. Freedom fighters such as C. L. R. James, Paul Robeson, George Padmore, Kwame Nkrumah and Dr. Eric Williams must be turning in their graves knowing that an opportunist like Selwyn Cudjoe is representing their views.

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