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Marxist ideology of C.L.R. James

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The Marxist ideology of C.L.R. James, author of The Black Jacobins, is embedded in his writing. As a result, structuralism alone is not an adequate methodology for analyzing his text on the San Domingo revolution. Structuralism is concerned primarily with individual thought process, not historical aspects or cultural change. However, Marxist literary criticism is appropriate because it’s more concerned with the importance of societal change.

Marxist literary criticism explores ways in which the text reveals ideological oppression of a dominant economic class over subordinate classes.

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The Black Jacobins historical narrative was often dull and bland. It relied heavily on quoted material, which slows a narrative considerably. But James peppers his account of the revolution with vivid and powerful metaphors, descriptions and words. To quote James himself “…he used them with a fencer’s finesse and skill.”

James’ text reflects and resists a dominant ideology. Toussaint L’Ouverture resists bourgeoisie values. A desire to challenge the power structure in contemporary society exists; and the prevailing issue is economic power which leads to political power.

In structuralist thought, conflicting ideas exist in the form of binary oppositions, which do not find resolution. According to Marxist structural thought, when the binary oppositions can not be overcome, they evolve.

Marxist thought permeates the structure, diction, and methodology of The Black Jacobins. But it’s not always obvious. An argument can be made that ideology is silent, and Marxist structuralism is often hidden within the text of a larger work.

French philosopher Paul Ricouer said that the task of Marxist literary criticism is concerned not with what the text says but what it hides. Several examples of this philosophy can be found within The Black Jacobins text.

Karl Marx said in 1852 “What was new in what I did was to demonstrate that the existence of classes is tied only to definite phases of development of production; that the class struggle necessarily leads to dictatorship of the proletariat; that this dictatorship is only a transition to the dissolution of all classes and leads to the formation of a classless society.”

Marx is reflecting on the phases of a revolution.

James writes “slavery corrupted the society of San Domingo and had now corrupted the French bourgeoisie in the first flush and pride of its political inheritance. Reaction triumphed. But phases of a revolution are not decided in parliaments, they are only registered there.”

James has cleverly hidden his Marxist views in these seemingly innocuous words.

Clearly, the conflicting binary oppositions in The Black Jacobins which could not be overcome without evolving on a societal level are the black-white, and slavery-freedom issues.

The opposition are never completely resolved, but they do evolve as we can see by James’ description of certain events.

James skillfully narrates the torture and death of Ogé to describe the brutality perpetrated by the whites against the slaves.

“They condemned them to be led by the executioner to the main door of the parish church, bare-headed and in their shirts, tied by a cord round the neck, and there on their knees, with wax candles in their hands, to confess their crimes and beg forgiveness, after which they were led to the parade-ground, and there have their arms, legs and elbows broken on a scaffold, after which they were bound on wheels, their faces turned to the sky, to remain thus while it pleased God to keep them alive.”

This is not only a powerful image of cruelty on the part of the oppressive whites, but also of God’s cruelty. God and the church are not often mentioned in the narrative, but when they are it’s not a favorable description. This is in line with Marxist thought.

But James also skillfully used the rape and killing of white women and children to bring attention to the level of brutality that the slaves themselves were capable or attaining.

“The slaves destroyed tirelessly…They whose, women had undergone countless violations, violated all the women who fell into their hands, often on the bodies of their still bleeding husbands, fathers, and brothers. Vengeance! Vengeance! Was their war-cry, and one of them carried a white child on a pike as a standard.”

Powerful and descriptive passages such as the two I’ve detailed above keep the narrative moving, but lengthy passages were not always required to develop an idea. Occasionally, a single word stands out in a line of text and brings attention quickly to the idea James is conveying to the reader.

For example, when Rigaud was attempting to restore calm, James writes, “Riguad issued a proclamation stating that he had been officially put in control of the government, and immediately calm was restored. Leborgne and Kerverseau left, and Rigaud remained master of the South.”

Master is an interesting, and appropriate, choice of words because it indicates that an oppressor is maintaining control over the oppressed. Rigaud, a Mulatto, was known for jailing blacks and whites, but not Mulattoes. So with one word James conveys the message that oppression hadn’t ended, it simply evolved and changed color.

One more example of strong diction can be found on page 178 where James writes, “…the claws of restoration.” That is a violent and permanent image created by the use of a single word. Claws are powerful tools of a predator that grip tightly and aren’t easily opened.

It has to be noted that some words stood out precisely because James omitted them from his text. Interestingly, first names were routinely missing. On page 204 James identifies Paul L’Ouverture by full name. This is one of the rare occasions that a full name is used. Of course Paul is the brother of Toussaint, and the first name is required to avoid confusion. James uses titles such as Earl or general frequently, but not first names. Perhaps he stripped away some individuality.

            Marxist thought, communism, and socialism were all considered to be part of a great social experiment. And James conveyed his thoughts about the experiment without actually naming it specifically in his text.

            “But he worked also at the restoration of the colony. Le Cap was partially rebuilt, and cultivation began to flourish. On a plantation in the North Plain a little negro named Brossard had the confidence of both blacks and whites. He got the labourers to work on a promise of a fourth part of the produce and he raised the capital to begin production again. The experiment was a great success and plantations were farmed out by the Government on this new principle. Toussaint encouraged his generals and other notabilities to adopt this system by which everybody including the state profited.”

            James is a historian with tremendous literary skills, but careful study of his text reveals a hidden agenda that goes beyond the telling of an oppressed group’s struggle for freedom. It’s all in the words.


Cite this Marxist ideology of C.L.R. James

Marxist ideology of C.L.R. James. (2016, Oct 30). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/marxist-ideology-of-c-l-r-james/

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