X-POSTED REVIEW: Kleiser on Nesbitt, 'The Price of Slavery: Capitalism and Revolution in the Caribbean (New World Studies)'

Sara Rich's picture
Nick Nesbitt
Grant Kleiser

Kleiser on Nesbitt, 'The Price of Slavery: Capitalism and Revolution in the Caribbean (New World Studies)'

Nick Nesbitt. The Price of Slavery: Capitalism and Revolution in the Caribbean (New World Studies). Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2022. viii + 274 pp. $95.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8139-4708-2; $35.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8139-4709-9

Reviewed by Grant Kleiser (Columbia University) Published on H-Slavery (July, 2022) Commissioned by Andrew J. Kettler (University of California, Los Angeles)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=58015

Nick Nesbitt’s The Price of Slavery: Capitalism and Revolution in the Caribbean constitutes the latest offering of a scholar who, for two decades, has written on themes ranging from critical theory, capitalism (and, more precisely, Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, or Capital), the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), Caribbean literature, and possibilities for revolutions in the future. In this new book, Nesbitt masterfully unites these themes into a coherent piece on the history of slavery. Furthermore, he offers important insights into questions related to capitalism and slavery that have bedeviled economic historians since the Trinidadian scholar Eric Williams published his seminal work, Capitalism and Slavery, in 1944.

Nesbitt’s first and major line of inquiry can be summarized as such: if slave labor does not create the lifeblood of capital, that is, “surplus value” (according to Marx’s definition in Capital) through a wage-based system, what then is the nature of slavery’s contribution to capitalism? The first part of the book tries to answer this question by returning to Marx’s analysis of capitalism in Capital, something most scholars of the so-called New History of Capitalism have neglected. In this work, Marx regarded capitalism as a social phenomenon that occurs within a governing framework of social relations (i.e., the “capitalist social form”) (p. 2). Nesbitt asserts that this line of thinking will serve to clarify slavery and capitalism’s relationship in the first half of The Price of Slavery.

Following this intervention, in the second half of this book, Nesbitt discusses a school of intellectuals engaged in a critical tradition he labels “Black Jacobinism” (p. 2). These scholars developed a critique of slavery, colonialism, and capitalism that largely followed, built upon, and, in Nesbitt’s words, “tropicalized,” Marx’s analysis of capitalism and “social forms” (p. 3). In his conclusion, Nesbitt calls for his readers to internalize the Black Jacobin argument to replace this system of injustice with a new and more just social form, one “ordered by the general prescription of justice as equality” (p. 190).

As should be obvious, Nesbitt’s book mainly takes the form of literary analysis and historiographic critique in its methodology. Nesbitt surveys a vast array of literature from the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries, analyzing their merit to understand capitalism and slavery’s complex relationship, all while using Marx’s Capital as a guide. While chapter 4 analyzes often-neglected primary sources from Haiti’s transition from slavery in the aftermath of the Haitian Revolution, Nesbitt’s book primarily serves as a critique of the overall lack of theoretical clarity and rigor in the scholarly and literary debates on racial capitalism, which, according to Nesbitt, only Suzanne Césaire in the Black Jacobin tradition fully overcomes.[1]

Chapter 1, “The Problem of Social Form in Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery,” begins Nesbitt’s discussion of Marx’s concept of social form in Capital, which governs his intervention in the historiography of capitalism and slavery. Nesbitt here emphasizes Marx’s insight that social relationships under capitalism are understood in relation to the central governing element of that society (i.e., “value,” or the idea that commodities bear a monetary price). “Capitalism,” Nesbit reminds us, “is the social form in which, as the saying goes, everything has its price, or more accurately, everything of value (from the perspective of capital) has its price, a value from which surplus value can potentially be realized” (p. 47). Marx shows how necessary a commodified, monetary form of appearance of labor (i.e., wages) is to capitalism, which thus distinguishes slave labor and wage labor in the capitalist social form.

Therefore, according to Nesbitt and Marx, enslaved people are excluded from capitalism’s socialization of labor power in the form of exchange value, since slaves’ labor power is not commodified (due to lack of wages). Thus, enslaved people constitute “constant capital” like mules, horses, or machines. Using this concept as a guide, Nesbitt surveys the various scholars who have written about capitalism and slavery, from Williams in 1944 to the present day. While some writers like Williams, Nesbitt argues, correctly understand slavery as a key element of global capitalism, everyone from “New Economic Historians” to even Marxist writers have “lacked a conception of the nature of value in capitalism that would allow for the theoretical analysis of slavery and capitalism as social forms” (p. 29). Therefore, Nesbitt concludes, the question about the essential nature of the relationship between capitalism and slavery remains to be solved.

In the next chapter, “Reading Capital in the Caribbean: Marx and the Nature of Capitalist Slavery,” Nesbitt tries to answer this question by examining all the references to slavery that Marx makes in his thousands of manuscript pages that comprise the three volumes of Capital. Of course, Nesbit states, Marx would agree that slave-based production has constituted a key element in the development and expansion of global capitalism since the eighteenth century. However, the problem remains that “slaves under the capitalist social form, unlike proletarian wage laborers, are commodities whose entire person is bought and sold at market for a determinate monetary price; they are, in other words, means of production identical in this sense to land, work animals, machines, and raw materials” (p. 65). To reconcile these two truths, Nesbit argues that slave-based production allowed for an initial massive “capture of profit” (rather than the creation of surplus value) in the eighteenth century in a world already governed by commodity markets.

Slave labor, according to Nesbit and Marx, contributes to the capitalist production process just like any other form of “constant capital” does, by passing a small portion of its own value to the commodity without creating any surplus value. In an interesting refinement of one of Eric Williams’s main arguments in Capitalism and Slavery, Nesbit then concludes that as the capitalist social form developed in the nineteenth century it “forced all members of society to produce not, or not primarily, material forms of wealth but unbounded increases in abstract (monetary) surplus value” (p. 103). Slavery then collapsed since, by definition, it could not equal such gains in productivity in “surplus value” compared to proletarian wage labor.

The Price of Slavery then moves on to its second section, which follows the Black Jacobin critical tradition. Scholars in this tradition, according to Nesbitt, have used Marx’s concepts effectively to critique slavery and colonialism, scrutinize and develop certain problems that Marx neglected, and call for revolutionary transformations of the capitalist social form. In chapter 3, Nesbit focuses on another Trinidadian historian, C. L. R. James, and his book on the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins (1938). Nesbitt praises James, like he does Williams, for linking the slave-labor plantations of Saint-Domingue (modern-day Haiti) before 1789 with capitalist exploitation, although without, perhaps, the key Marxian theoretical analysis needed to link these two phenomena as Nesbitt has just done. Where James excels, however, is with the insights he brings on how to effect a revolutionary transformation of an unjust and hyperviolent social form (here the capitalist social form of plantation slavery) into a more just, egalitarian one (here the universal human emancipation from slavery). Nesbitt notes that James’s study of the Haitian Revolution provides us with three essential components for such a transformation: 1) an idea of freedom and equality (via the French Revolution and abolition decree of 1794), 2) a concerted struggle of a “mass” of hundreds of thousands of formerly enslaved people, and 3) the guidance of leaders of genius such as Toussaint Louverture. Rather than focus on blind contingency, James highlights “the real possibility of the revolutionary destruction of global, imperial capitalism” (p. 128).

Moving on to the aftermath of the Haitian Revolution, Nesbitt asks, “Was the invention of Haiti the coming of justice as equality, the subsumption of a newly created peripheral dependency on capital, or something entirely unprecedented?” (p. 130). James was not interested in this particular question, but it is an essential one, Nesbitt maintains, to understand where postcolonial labor fits in with social form. Haitian independence in 1804 launched a huge class struggle between the rural Haitian population eager to work for their own subsistence and the landowning class, which sought to restart commodity production for a global market in a forced but remunerated labor form. Nesbitt asserts that this later economic form won out, thus making newly freed Haitian laborers “proletarian,” albeit existing in a “transitional monetary form of labor” between both slave labor and fully commodified wage labor (p. 154).

Finally, Nesbitt presents the Black Jacobin critiques of such forms of labor via the writings of twentieth-century novelists and essayists Aimé Césaire, Jacques Stephen Alexis, and Suzanne Césaire.[4] While Nesbitt praises all these writers for linking the injustices of Antillean colonialism with a broader Marxian struggle to overcome injustices in the global South’s colonial and postcolonial societies, Nesbitt singles out Suzanne Césaire. Connecting his final chapter directly to part 1 of the book, Nesbitt remarks that “only Suzanne Césaire addresses her critique to the monetary wage form of appearance of capitalist labor in the specific sense that Marx develops the critical concept of social form” (p. 157). Suzanne Césaire writes powerfully about a “Caribbean conflagration” of the social form of Antillean and global capitalism that makes all things take the form of the appearance of commodities, which, in Nesbitt’s mind, constitutes a culminating moment in the Caribbean critique of late colonial capitalism (p. 187).

The Price of Slavery is well organized and scholarly rigorous. It clearly lays out its questions, arguments, and trajectory while precisely examining the contributions of many scholars to the field of slavery and capitalism. Nesbitt’s work to systematically reconstruct, for the first time, all the references to capitalist slavery across the three massive volumes of Marx’s Capital serves as an essential building block for any future analysis of the relationship between capitalism and slavery. While not highlighted as much (I think) as possible in the introduction, Nesbitt’s formulation of slavery’s contribution to capitalism as a “capture of profit” (rather than surplus value), and slavery’s subsequent collapse due to the capitalistic social form’s need for surplus value, are important and unique arguments to advance the field.

While some scholars (especially those whose work Nesbitt examines) may find subtle points of criticism with his focus on Marx or his assessment of individual pieces of literature, Nesbitt has done an extraordinary job of workshopping this book with many reputable scholars and seminars, as noted in his acknowledgments. However, a couple of questions and suggestions remain. First, I wonder if Nesbitt could have devoted some space to discuss chapter 12 of Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery (“The Slaves and Slavery”). While a later addition to Williams’s manuscript, this chapter acknowledges the profound role that enslaved people’s violent rebellions and resistance played in pressuring British politicians to abolish the slave trade and slavery. Williams, at least in this chapter, may figure closer to James’s Black Jacobins and could likewise offer insights into on-the-ground efforts to overthrow the capitalist social form of plantation slavery in the British Empire (albeit in a manner distinct from Haiti). Second, in Nesbitt’s culminating argument about slavery’s demise due to the demands of the capitalistic social form, he states that this process occurred “after 1812” (p. 103). Why 1812? Could this be a mistake and mean “1842” in reference to the earlier analysis of the crisis of Antillean sugar cane production in the 1830s and 1840s? Could it correspond to Henry Christophe’s Code Henry (1812) that Nesbitt examines later in chapter 4? With such an important argument, clear periodization is, of course, essential.

Overall, however, this book will serve as a useful guide for advanced graduate students and scholars of capitalism and slavery. It will provide such readers with a thorough analysis of Capital and a multitude of important works by economic historians, Marxist scholars, black militant thinkers, and French Antillean novelists and essayists. It will help clarify slavery and capitalism’s interwoven, codependent, yet analytically distinct relationship as two exploitative phenomena while highlighting centuries-long critiques and protests about them. And despite such a brutal subject, this book is a subtly hopeful one. In the end, Nesbitt hints that a new social form, one based on egalitarianism and justice, is “the living legacy of the Black Jacobin imperative” (p. 190).


[1]. Suzanne Césaire, Le grand camouflage: Écrits de dissidence (1941-1945), ed. Daniel Maximin (Paris: Seuil, 2009).

[2]. Aimé Césaire, Aimé Césaire: Écrits politiques, ed. Edouard de Lépine, 5 vols. (Paris: Nouvelles éditiones Jean-Michel Place, 2016-2018); Jacques Stephen Alexis, Compère Général Soleil (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1955); Suzanne Césaire, Le grand camouflage.

Citation: Grant Kleiser. Review of Nesbitt, Nick, The Price of Slavery: Capitalism and Revolution in the Caribbean (New World Studies). H-Slavery, H-Net Reviews. July, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=58015

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.