CLR James and the Black Jacobins

Issue: 126

Christian Høgsbjerg

Aimé Césaire, the late, great Martinican poet and activist, once noted that it was in Haiti that the “colonial problem” was first posed in all its complexity.1 In 1492 the tropical Caribbean island was “discovered” for the Spanish Empire by Christopher Columbus, a discovery that resulted in the half a million strong existing indigenous Taino population being all but exterminated within a generation as a ruthless search for rivers of gold led only to rivers of blood. Columbus had described “Ayiti”, as the Taino had called it (“Land of mountains”), as a “paradise”, and promptly therefore renamed the island La Española—or Hispaniola—”coming from Spain”. But for the Taino, their hopes of finding paradise were irredeemably lost. In the words of the historian Laurent Dubois, Haiti was “the ground zero of European colonialism in the Americas”.2 In the light of this, the catastrophe that has befallen its people in the wake of the earthquake in January 2010 seems a particularly cruel echo of the devastation of over 500 years ago. Indeed one could not help but be reminded by the sight of US marines (once again demonstrating that “military occupation” is the only form of the “humanitarian intervention” understood by the rulers of the American Empire) that the “colonial problem” highlighted by Césaire continues to haunt Haiti and remains as far away as ever from a meaningful solution.3

Yet Césaire also noted that while the knot of colonialism may have been first tied in Haiti, the Haitian people were also one of the very first peoples to untie it. The Haitian Revolution, which began in 1791 and culminated in Haiti’s declaration of independence on New Year’s Day 1804, saw the birth of one of the world’s first post-colonial nations. It is only with some appreciation of the world-historical importance and inspiration of the Haitian Revolution that one can begin to understand why Western imperial powers have tied a tight neocolonial noose around Haiti ever since.4 I will aim to not only give a sense of something of the power and glory of the Haitian Revolution itself, but also pay tribute to the magisterial work that for the very first time elevated it to its rightful place in modern world history: The Black Jacobins by the Trinidadian Marxist historian Cyril Lionel Robert James, first published in 1938. CLR James (1901-1989) was, of course, more than just the author of The Black Jacobins. A towering Pan-Africanist intellectual and activist, he was also a pioneer of the modern West Indian novel, a literary critic, playwright, sports writer and, perhaps most critically, one of the 20th century’s outstanding representatives of the revolutionary democratic tradition of “socialism from below”.5 Nevertheless, The Black Jacobins, one of the grandest of “grand narratives” ever penned, stands as perhaps James’s magnum opus and has long won for itself the status of a classic, and not simply among Marxists. As the historian James Walvin notes, The Black Jacobins not only “remains the pre-eminent account” of the Haitian Revolution “despite the vast accumulation of detail and argument advanced by armies of scholars” since, but also stands as the ideal “starting point” for understanding the experience of slavery in general.6 It is impossible to do justice to The Black Jacobins or the Haitian Revolution itself, and the continuing profusion of scholarship about them, in a short article like this.7 Rather this article aims to encourage readers who have not yet already had the privilege of reading James’s masterful classic of historical literature to do so, for The Black Jacobins, as the best possible introduction to the Haitian Revolution itself, stands as a timeless and indispensable reminder of the inspiring revolutionary spirit and tradition of the Haitian people, a rich resource of hope they will need to draw strength from now as much as ever.

The only successful slave revolt in history

One of James’s greatest and most celebrated achievements in The Black Jacobins was that, for the very first time, he told the story of the Haitian Revolution “from below”, from the point of view of the great mass of people who actually made the revolution. Initially James was less writing a “history from below” than a “history from below-decks”. Around two thirds of the people who were to ultimately make the Haitian Revolution began their lives growing up in Africa, before being captured, mostly at a young age, and enduring the violence and terror of the Middle Passage to the Americas in chains on European slave ships. The other third were descendants of those who had survived such a crossing—and so in that sense the Haitian Revolution was an “African revolution”, albeit in a Caribbean setting.8

Marx famously once said that “men make their own history but not in the circumstances of their own choosing”. It is hard to imagine worse circumstances in which to try to make history than those in which the men, women and children who were to make the Haitian Revolution found themselves. The horror and barbarism of the slave trade, dominated during its 18th century “golden age” by the British Empire (from 1657 to 1807 British ships carried as many Africans across the Atlantic as all other slave trading nations combined), is well documented. But the heroic individual and collective resistance by the enslaved Africans themselves should never be forgotten. In The Black Jacobins James—himself the great grandson of slaves—begins with the slave experience and slave resistance. In his first chapter, entitled simply “The Property”, he demonstrated that, while “to the slave traders the slaves were articles of trade and no more”, the enslaved “remained, despite their black skins and curly hair, quite invincibly human beings”:

They undertook vast hunger strikes; undid their chains and hurled themselves on the crew in futile attempts at insurrection. What could these island tribesmen do on the open sea, in a complicated sailing vessel? To brighten their spirits it became the custom to have them up on the deck once a day and force them to dance. Some took the opportunity to jump overboard, uttering cries of triumph as they cleared the vessel and disappeared below the surface.9

Death meant not only a release from their cruel bondage but also, the captives believed, a return to Africa. Mass suicide in order to spite the sadistic slave captains and owners was only too common. Those who managed to escape overboard were in some ways the lucky ones. Arrival in the New World meant being branded with a hot iron, then working 12 or 18 hour days on the plantations, harvesting and processing sugar cane or other tropical produce.

By the 18th century the French had partially displaced the Spanish on the western edge of Hispaniola and established a colony called Saint Domingue. The French colonial regime was particularly brutal, but across the Caribbean slaves were literally worked to death, with an average life expectancy of seven years. The most cruel and sadistic torture—whipping, castration, mutilation and so on—was liberally deployed to maintain “law and order”. This Dante-esque living hell for the enslaved black labourers was often justified on the racist grounds that African people were a cursed subsection of humanity. According to Christian European champions of white supremacy they were the sons of Ham, destined forever to be exploited as beasts of burden—”hewers of wood and drawers of water”, as the Bible said. Their labour power was craved by European capitalists for the growing plantation economies in the Americas. The immense riches generated on the sugar plantations of Saint Domingue in particular meant the colony quickly became the jewel in the crown of the French Empire, “the Pearl of the Antilles”, and the envy of the rest of the imperial world. As James noted, “If on no earthly spot was so much misery concentrated as on a slave ship, then on no portion of the globe did its surface in proportion to its dimensions yield so much wealth as the colony of San Domingo [Saint Domingue]. And yet it was this very prosperity which would lead to the revolution”.10

Lenin famously noted that there were three conditions for a revolutionary situation. The first was that the ruling classes were not longer able to carry on ruling in the old way, that “the upper classes were sufficiently at loggerheads with each other and had significantly weakened themselves in a struggle which is beyond their strength”.11 Saint Domingue, like any slave society, was ruled and ordered according to a strict racial hierarchy with a community of about 31,000 whites at the top.12 Of course, there were all sorts of divisions among this white society, most obviously between the rich and propertied (those the slaves called grand blancs—”big whites”—or Blancs blancs—”White whites”) and the poor petit blancs. As a colony, there were also tensions amongst the rich. On the one hand, the master planter class dreamt of ultimate national independence from France and the freedom to trade on the open market with other countries for the best price and so better enrich itself. On the other hand, the colonial bureaucratic elite were direct representatives of the Bourbon monarchy and governed in the interests of the French metropole.

But all these internal and external contradictions did not fully manifest themselves until 1789, when the Great French Revolution exploded in Paris, symbolised by the storming of the Bastille. The white planters of Saint Domingue, like those in other French colonies, now took the opportunity to join war on the representatives of the absolute Bourbon monarchy. This split white society between supporters of the revolution, “the Patriots”, and counter-revolutionary Royalists. Soon white Saint Domingue, like France itself, was in a state of civil war. The local planter class were perhaps inspired by the American Revolution, which had succeeded in ending the colonial domination of Britain while, crucially, leaving the profitable institution of slavery preserved intact. But, as the local planter class was soon to find out, trying to make an elite “revolution from above” in the name of “liberty” while presiding over the most obscene form of tyranny imaginable was to prove rather easier said than done.

The second condition Lenin suggested for a revolutionary situation was that “all the vacillating, wavering, unstable, intermediate elements” of society “had sufficiently exposed themselves in the eyes of the people” and bankrupted themselves politically.13 In Saint Domingue there existed a fair number of wavering, intermediate elements in society between the white planter class and the masses of black slaves. There was a tiny free black population made up of slaves who had either bought their way out of slavery or been freed at some point. However, far more significant was the 28,000-strong free coloured population—the mixed heritage so-called Mulattoes—mainly the offspring of illicit relationships between white
slave-owners and black slave-women.14 Many free people of colour were rich and powerful planters who owned slaves themselves. Others lived a poorer existence and probably identified somewhat more with the plight of the enslaved black community. Yet while the free people of colour were quite economically powerful, politically and legally they were excluded and discriminated against. Slave societies were based on a strict racial hierarchy and the free coloured population were detested and persecuted by whites because of their darker coloured skin.

The free people of colour saw in the French Revolution of 1789 a chance to stake their claim as “men” and so challenge the rule of white supremacy on the island and at last get political equality. Their arguments increasingly carried weight in revolutionary France itself, where a transformation of mass consciousness was now under way. Ideas were turning against not only the aristocracy of birth but against racism, the “aristocracy of the skin”. Yet in Saint Domingue, in 1790, a planned insurrection by some free people of colour under a man called Vincent Ogé in the north in the name of liberty was brutally repressed. Neither the poor nor rich whites, however much they hated each other and might at times try to enlist the free people of colour as allies against one another, were prepared to tolerate any change to the racial status quo. In the south of Saint Domingue the free coloured population organised itself militarily and fought the local whites. But in these early battles the free people of colour, while championing the ideals of liberty and equality, themselves maintained a deadly silence on the question of slavery. Yet without the slaves they could not really hope to defeat the whites militarily. Their dream of simply replacing the whites as the ruling planter class of Saint Domingue was a bankrupt one, and ultimately left them hopeless and exposed as a group.

The third and final condition for a revolutionary situation, Lenin suggested, was that the ruled themselves should no longer be prepared to tolerate being ruled in the old way, that “a mass sentiment among the exploited and oppressed masses in favour of supporting the most determined, supremely bold, revolutionary action has arisen and begun vigorously to grow”.15 And here we come to the black enslaved Africans themselves, whose miserable existence meant they were generally predisposed to meeting this condition of demanding revolutionary emancipation at all times and places across the Americas. Indeed, the French colony of Saint Domingue had always looked to farsighted observers as though it was a sleeping volcano that could erupt into social revolution at any moment. The master planter class, the Comte de Mirabeau noted in 1789, was “sleeping at the foot of Vesuvius”. It was a matter not simply of the exceptional brutality and relentless injustices of the planters crying out to be avenged, but of the balance of forces. By the time of the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, the 30,000 or so whites lived amidst some 500,000 enslaved blacks.16 When Vincent Ogé, the leader of the doomed uprising in 1790 of the free people of colour, was being tortured to death by his white captors, “he took black powder or seedgrains in the hollow of his hand…sprinkled a film of white ones on the top, and said to his judges, ‘Behold they are white;’ then shook his hand and said, ‘Where are the whites? Où sont les blancs?’”17

The French Revolution played an important role in creating for the first time among the slaves a feeling that supremely bold, revolutionary action could now win as a strategy. Slave resistance to slavery, despite the incredible dangers, was inevitable—indeed irrepressible—and slave-owners always lived in fear of being poisoned by their domestic slaves. During the 18th century heroic bands of slaves would escape from the plantations and form independent maroon communities in the mountains which they successfully and fiercely defended from the colonial militias. Though destined to be an ever-present thorn in the side of the colonial regime, maroon communities in some senses acted as a safety valve for the system—releasing the pressures inherent in slave societies.

The Africans brought with them their own religions which, in dialogue with Catholicism, formed the new fusion of Vodou. Although proscribed by the colonial authorities, the religion allowed those without “education or encouragement to cherish a dream of freedom”.18 But it seems doubtful that many slaves on Saint Domingue ever seriously imagined it was possible to collectively rise up and confront the system head on until the French Revolution. There had been one large attempt at a slave revolt on Saint Domingue in the mid-18th century—led by the African maroon leader Makandal—but it had been preemptively and ruthlessly crushed with relative ease by the white community and their masses of troops.

It was difficult for the great mass of slaves, illiterate and without formal education, to get any direct information on the revolutionary events in France themselves. But many slaves worked in domestic service and listened to the tense debates among the master planter class of Saint Domingue. Accordingly, as James noted:

they had heard of the revolution and had construed it in their own image: the white slaves in France had risen, and killed their masters, and were now enjoying the fruits of the earth. It was gravely inaccurate in fact, but they had caught the spirit of the thing. Liberty. Equality. Fraternity.19

Of course, the proclamation of these new ideals by the revolutionary government in France had not led to any immediate change whatsoever in the lives of the enslaved across the French Empire. The Declaration of The Rights of Man and Citizen in 1789 did not mention slaves, just as it did not mention women. Indeed it stated that property rights were sacred and slaves, after all, were property. But such revolutionary declarations had nonetheless thrown the minority free population of Saint Domingue into turmoil and civil war in the name of liberty. Now the slaves saw their opportunity to strike out on their own for freedom and began to plan accordingly.

After a series of mass meetings held in the northern mountain forests at night in early 1791, and inspired by Vodou priests like Boukman, the slaves agreed to rise on 24 August 1791. They would take the great northern port Le Cap at a time when the Colonial Assembly of Saint Domingue was due to meet—and they would have the chance to take out the island’s political elite in one deadly fell swoop. In the event, things didn’t quite go to plan. The rising began a little prematurely, giving the planters just enough time to adequately defend Le Cap itself. Nevertheless, on the night of Sunday 21 August 1791 a great mass of slaves in the north made their move as one, rising under the revolutionary slogan “Liberty or death”. James vividly described the events of that night, when “a tropical storm raged, with lightning and gusts of wind and heavy showers of rain”:

Carrying torches to light their way, the leaders of the revolt met in an open space in the thick forests of the Morne Rouge, a mountain overlooking Le Cap. There Boukman gave the last instructions and, after Voodoo incantations and the sucking of the blood of a stuck pig, he stimulated his followers by a prayer spoken in Creole. “The god who created the sun which gives us light, who rouses the waves and rules the storm, though hidden in the clouds, he watches us. He sees all that the white man does. The god of the white man inspires him with crime, but our god calls upon us to do good works. Our god who is good to us orders us to revenge our wrongs. He will direct our arms and aid us…listen to the voice of liberty, which speaks in the hearts of us all.”

That very night they began. Each slave gang murdered its masters and burnt the plantation to the ground…precautions…had saved Le Cap, but the preparation otherwise had been thorough and complete, and in a few days one half of the famous North Plain was a flaming ruin. From Le Cap the whole horizon was a wall of fire. From this wall continually rose thick black volumes of smoke, through which came tongues of flame leaping to the very sky. For nearly three days the people of Le Cap could barely distinguish day from night, while a rain of burning cane straw, driven before the wind like flakes of snow, flew over the city and the shipping in the harbour, threatening both with destruction.20

As Dubois notes, if the slaves themselves had not risen up against slavery, “the French Revolution would have probably run its course, like the American Revolution, without destroying the massive violation of human rights at the heart of the nation’s existence”.21 But it was not enough in itself for the slaves to have risen in August 1791. Any revolutionary movement that does not go forward does not stand still but goes backwards, and to have gone backwards would have meant capture and certain death for the rebels. The black slave revolt in the north simply had to grow and spread, which it did. It soon pulled behind it and into its ranks sections of more privileged groups such as free blacks and even at times the free coloured population.

One free black was an ex-slave livestock steward, Toussaint Bréda, who had been educated by missionaries and so was able to read and write. He had possibly even read some anti-slavery polemics prophesying a new “black Spartacus” by the French priest and Enlightenment philosopher Abbé Raynal, along with some commentaries on military campaigns by Julius Caesar. Toussaint was to be the most important recruit into the ranks of the slave revolt. He began to train up a small disciplined army at the core of the slave revolt and through his military genius and mastery of strategy and tactics soon rose to become its legendary leader, in the process dropping his former master’s surname and taking the new name Louverture, “the opening”.22 The 1791 insurrection had indeed opened up all manner of new possibilities and potentialities. As James noted in his preface to The Black Jacobins, the Haitian Revolution came, saw, and conquered:

The struggle lasted for twelve years. The slaves defeated in turn the local whites and the soldiers of the French monarchy, a Spanish invasion, a British expedition of some 60,000 men, and a French expedition of similar size under Bonaparte’s brother-in-law. The defeat of Bonaparte’s expedition in 1803 resulted in the establishment of the Negro state of Haiti which has lasted to this day. The revolt is the only successful slave revolt in history, and the odds it had to overcome are evidence of the magnitude of the interests that were involved. The transformation of slaves, trembling in hundreds before a single white man, into a people able to organise themselves and defeat the most powerful European nations of their day, is one of the great epics of revolutionary struggle and achievement.23

Before 1791 very few Europeans questioned the slave trade, let alone agitated for its end. Colonial slavery in the Americas had been seen as something natural and essential to the success of the emerging global capitalist system and the making of the modern world. The Haitian Revolution created the first independent black republic outside Africa and represented “the threat of a good example” to enslaved peoples across the Americas. To paraphrase Walter Benjamin, it “blasted open the continuum of this history”.24 In 1794, only three years after the eruption of the slave revolt, the French were forced to abolish slavery across their vast empire. In 1807, only three years after Haiti’s triumphant declaration of independence, the British Empire had been forced to abandon its participation in the highly profitable Atlantic slave trade. The great black American historian of the American Civil War, WEB Du Bois, had grasped the essential importance of events in Haiti in passing in his 1897 thesis on the Suppression of the African Slave Trade. Yet James’s Black Jacobins in 1938 for the first time historically demonstrated that it was indeed the Haitian Revolution that “killed the West Indian slave-trade and slavery”.25

Leon Trotsky once remarked that “what has been written with the sword cannot be wiped out by the pen…at least so far as the sword of revolution is concerned”.26 Yet outside Haiti itself, where a rich nationalist historiography of the revolution developed, this had not deterred those James described as “the professional white-washers” of the historical record. This “venal race of scholars” put their pens to the task of trying to wipe out all trace of what had been written in blood and fire by the black rebel slave army under Toussaint Louverture.27 Perhaps their failure to comprehend “the only successful slave revolt in history” was not totally their fault. The Haitian scholar Michel-Rolph Trouillot has noted that the Haitian Revolution “entered history with the peculiar characteristic of being unthinkable even as it happened…the general silence that Western historiography has produced around the Haitian Revolution originally stemmed from the incapacity to express the unthinkable”.28

Instead of seriously grappling with questions of race, slavery and colonialism, Western scholars justified the ever-growing expansion of European power through inventing a new nationalist tradition of imperial “humanitarianism”. They comforted themselves with the myth that slavery really had been abolished through a “moral crusade” waged from above by European states through campaigning work by philanthropic politicians like William Wilberforce. As the compatriot and one time student of James, Eric Williams, famously once commented, “The British historians wrote almost as if Britain had introduced Negro slavery solely for the satisfaction of abolishing it”.29 In a few path-breaking paragraphs of The Black Jacobins, and for the very first time in the English language, James “propounded an ingenious explanation of how humanitarian motives were subordinated to economics in the Younger Pitt’s conduct of abolition in the 1790s”.30 James demolished the foundations on which over a century of British scholarship on abolition had rested without dishonouring “those millions of honest English Nonconformists who listened to their clergymen and gave strength to the English movement for the abolition of slavery”, people whom “the sons of Africa and the lovers of humanity will remember with gratitude and affection”.31

In The Black Jacobins, James did not just “effectively for the first time” give “slaves an agency”—he made emancipation from slavery and the slave trade the act of the enslaved themselves.32 Indeed, the most important thing about the Haitian Revolution was in many ways the revolution itself, and the dramatic transformation of consciousness and confidence of those who made it. As James noted, if “slavery dulls the intellect and degrades the character of the slave”, by 1798 and the expulsion of the British from the island, the Haitian Revolution “had created a new race of men”:

This change had first expressed itself in August 1791…but they were soon formed into regiments and were hardened by fighting. They organised themselves into armed sections and into popular bodies… At bottom the popular movement had acquired an immense self confidence. The former slaves had defeated white colonists, Spaniards and British, and now they were free. They were aware of French politics, for it concerned them deeply. Black men who had been slaves were deputies in the French Parliament, black men who had been slaves negotiated with French and foreign governments. Black men who had been slaves filled the highest positions in the colony. There was Toussaint, the former slave, incredibly grand and powerful and incomparably the greatest man in San Domingo. There was no need to be ashamed of being a black. The revolution had awakened them, had given them the possibility of achievement, confidence and pride. That psychological weakness, that feeling of inferiority with which the imperialists poison colonial peoples everywhere, these were gone.33

Writing a revolutionary history

Reflecting on the writing of The Black Jacobins in 1980, CLR James noted, “My West Indian experiences and my study of Marxism had made me see what had eluded many previous writers, that it was the slaves who had made the revolution”.34 The seeds of James’s unique insight into the Haitian Revolution were sown while growing to intellectual maturity as a member of the black middle class in the British crown colony of Trinidad. This was another tiny Caribbean island which had been scarred by the experience of slavery and centuries of imperial domination by Spain, France and Britain. The systematic and daily injustices that resulted from the pervasive racism of a regime premised on white supremacy clearly echoed the situation in colonial Saint Domingue. “The race question is subsidiary to the class question in politics, and to think of imperialism in terms of race is disastrous”, James noted, “but to neglect the racial factor as merely incidental is an error only less grave than to make it fundamental”.35 In the 1920s James was to be inspired by the power of the mass movements of resistance which had taken off across the British Empire after the First World War. As a supporter of Captain Cipriani’s nationalist Trinidadian Workingmen’s Association he had begun to independently research the rich and hidden history of resistance and revolution in the Caribbean and the wider African diaspora.

It was while still in Trinidad in 1931 that James had first written in a vindicatory manner about Toussaint Louverture in order to prove that black people had always been manifestly fit and “ready for self-government”. No doubt mindful of the plight of Haiti itself—since 1915 under American military occupation—James recalled he was “reading everything” he could on the Haitian Revolution. But, aside from a couple of books written by British writers during the 1850s, including JR Beard’s little 1855 biography of Toussaint, he was grievously disappointed upon finding no books of “serious historical value” in colonial Trinidad. James remembered his reaction on reading one recent “very bad” biography of Toussaint, Percy Waxman’s The Black Napoleon: “What the goddam hell is this?… I was tired of hearing that the West Indians were oppressed, that we were black and miserable, that we had been brought from Africa, and that we were living there and that we were being exploited”.36

On making the move to the “mother country” of Britain in 1932, James continued to research the Haitian Revolution: “I began to look for materials and found only the same shallow ones I had read in the Caribbean. I immediately began to import books from France which dealt seriously with this memorable event in French history”.37 From 1933 on James would make regular research trips over to the libraries and archives in Paris and elsewhere in France, where his ability to read French as a black British colonial subject dazzled the librarians. He had the good fortune to meet up with the Haitian military historian Colonel Auguste Nemours, “an enthusiastic admirer of Toussaint but exceptionally fair”, who was keen to explain Haiti’s war of independence to him “in great detail, using books and coffee cups on a large table”.38 Despite the difficulty of getting primary source material on the importance of the African heritage and “survivals” to the Haitian Revolution during the 1930s, James was arguably able to suggestively point to the importance of the blackness of the “black Jacobins”. For example, James stressed that Haitian Vodou was “the medium of the conspiracy”.39

Critical to understanding how James successfully “for the first time” treated “the revolutionary potential of the masses” as “an integral part of the revolutionary process” in Haiti was his steady political radicalisation.40 James had been moving closer towards revolutionary Marxism and “class struggle Pan-Africanism” since arriving in Britain in the worst period of the Great Depression. Critical to his intellectual evolution was his reading in 1932 of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, which for James now formed a model for not only the writing of history in general but the history of revolutions in particular. “The history of a revolution”, Trotsky had written, “is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny”.41 The tiny number of Western “scholars” who had tried to discuss Haitian history considered the “unthinkable” Haitian Revolution as a mere “revolt” or “rebellion”, or even simply a bloodthirsty and savage race war, without reason or rhyme.42 James demolished this racist argument in The Black Jacobins, stressing how race and class were intrinsically intertwined, and so making class—and class struggle—of central importance in understanding the tumultuous upheaval. “Had the monarchists been white, the bourgeoisie brown, and the masses of France black, the French Revolution would have gone down in history as a race war. But although they were all white in France they fought just the same”.43

James for the first time brought cold hard rationality to the inspired frenzy of the Haitian Revolution. Yet his critical stress on black agency and the dramatic transformation in consciousness and confidence of the Haitian masses was combined with a masterful grasp of the totality of social relations within which they acted. Trotsky’s History was a vital inspiration but James nonetheless made an original and outstanding application of the theory of uneven and combined capitalist development to the colonial Caribbean, pioneering a materialist analysis of New World colonial slavery and the Atlantic slave trade. He noted that the plantations and the slave ships were fundamentally modern capitalist institutions in themselves, things which did not just enrich but had been themselves formed by “the French bourgeoisie” and “the British bourgeoisie”. He described the plantations as “huge sugar factories” and the slaves as therefore not only a proto-peasantry and proto-consumers but also a proto-proletariat, indeed “closer to a modern proletariat than any group of workers in existence at the time”. When they rose as “revolutionary labourers” and set fire to the plantations, he compared them to “the Luddite wreckers”.44

As Trotsky had noted, the peculiarities resulting from the “backwardness” of Russian historical development had explained the “enigma” that “a backward country was the first to place the proletariat in power”:

Moreover, in Russia the proletariat did not arise gradually through the ages, carrying with itself the burden of the past as in England, but in leaps involving sharp changes of environment, ties, relations, and a sharp break with the past. It is just this fact—combined with the concentrated oppressions of Tsarism—that made the Russian workers hospitable to the boldest conclusions of revolutionary thought—just as the backward industries were hospitable to the last word in capitalist organisation”.45

The Black Jacobins demonstrated that uneven and combined development meant that the enslaved labourers of Saint Domingue, suffering under the “concentrated oppressions” of slavery, were soon to be “hospitable to the boldest conclusions of revolutionary thought” radiating from the Jacobins in revolutionary Paris. It also showed how the Marxist theory of permanent revolution illuminated not just anti-colonial struggles in the age of socialist revolution, but also the anti-slavery liberation struggle in the age of “bourgeois-democratic” revolution. Indeed, James would subsequently declare that the Marxist theory of permanent revolution—which Trotsky had done so much to develop—formed the entire “theoretical basis” of The Black Jacobins:

In a period of world-wide revolutionary change, such as that of 1789-1815 and our period which began with 1917, the revolutionary crisis lifts backward peoples over centuries and projects them into the very forefront of the advanced movement of the day.46

Throughout his study of the Haitian Revolution, James ably demonstrated for the first time that it was not simply an inspiring struggle on a tiny island on the periphery of the world system, but was inextricably intertwined with the Great French Revolution throughout. It pushed the revolutionary process forward in the metropole itself, investing notions of human rights with new meanings and universal significance. In writing about the Haitian Revolution, James rewrote the history of the French Revolution as well. After the chapter narrating the 1791 insurrection, “The San Domingo Masses Begin”, James followed this up with a chapter entitled “And the Paris Masses Complete”. This detailed how in February 1794, when the French Revolution was at its height and in the presence of an inspiring deputation representing the liberation struggle in Saint Domingue, the National Convention not only finally faced political reality—the fact that the slaves had already abolished slavery in Saint Domingue—but, in a glorious moment of revolutionary history, voted to abolish slavery throughout the Republic in the name of the Rights of Man.47 This was not simply a manifestation of the new revolutionary ideals taking hold among the French people—it came about because of the realisation that it was in the material interests of both revolutionary struggles, one in the imperial metropolis and one in the colonial periphery, to forge unity against the clear and present danger of counter-revolution. In a fundamental sense, the destinies of the two revolutions were from now on explicitly bound together.

Few, if any, embodied this new spirit of solidarity and fraternity more than Toussaint Louverture himself. After hearing the news of the 1794 vote in the French Convention, he led the forces at his disposal into alliance with the revolutionary French Republic, further radicalising the Haitian Revolution through this new found “black Jacobinism”. The ideals of the Enlightenment, of liberty, equality and fraternity, became a material force to be reckoned with in Saint Domingue, embodied in the black rebel slave army built and led to victory after victory by Toussaint. During the black Africans’ collective struggle for freedom, long-held and cherished beliefs in kingship, rooted in ancient tribal tradition, were transcended. Toussaint, who understood the revolutionary slogans of liberty and equality were “great weapons in an age of slaves…used them with a fencer’s finesse and skill”, and so was central to ensuring it was the new ideas which triumphed over the old, helping to ensure the ultimately victorious outcome of the Revolution.48 As James noted of Toussaint:

leader of a backward and ignorant mass, he was yet in the forefront of the great historical movement of his time… The blacks were taking their part in the destruction of European feudalism begun by the French Revolution, and liberty and equality, the slogans of the revolution, meant far more to them than to any Frenchman. That was why in the hour of danger Toussaint, uninstructed as he was, could find the language and accent of Diderot, Rousseau, and Raynal, of Mirabeau, Robespierre and Danton. And in one respect he excelled them all. For even these masters of the spoken and written word, owing to the class complications of their society, too often had to pause, to hesitate, to qualify. Toussaint could defend the freedom of the blacks without reservation.49

It was not long before James suggested that:

to all the blacks, revolutionary France, which had decreed equality and the abolition of slavery, was a beacon among the nations. France was to them indeed the mother country. Toussaint, looking always to the development of the blacks as a people, did not want to break from France.50

Yet, tragically, while the Parisian masses had been able to exert tremendous influence over the French Republic from 1793-94, there were strict material limits on what was possible for them to achieve, and the French Revolution itself soon stalled, degenerated and fell back into reaction.

In Saint Domingue itself, the revolution for the time being continued to develop and progress. The glorious military victories of the bold Haitian rebels, who were, James insisted, “revolutionaries through and through…brothers of the Cordeliers in Paris and the Vyborg workers in Petrograd”, ultimately created a dilemma for their outstanding revolutionary leader.51 In 1797 Toussaint had been appointed commander in chief of the French forces in Saint Domingue and by 1800 ruled the colony as governor. However, as Frederick Engels had once noted with respect to the early 16th century revolutionary German peasant leader Thomas Münzer:

the worst thing that can befall a leader of an extreme party is to be compelled to take over a government in an epoch when the movement is not yet ripe for the domination of the class which he represents, and for the realisation of the measures which that domination implies.

What he can do depends not upon his will but upon the degree of contradiction between the various classes, and upon the level of development of the material means of existence, of the conditions of production and commerce upon which class contradictions always repose. What he ought to do, what his party demands of him, again depends not upon him or the stage of development of the class struggle and its conditions. He is bound to the doctrines and demands hitherto propounded…thus, he necessarily finds himself in an insolvable dilemma. What he can do contradicts all his previous actions, principles and immediate interests of his party, and what he ought to do cannot be done. In a word, he is compelled to represent not his party or his class, but the class for whose domination the movement is then ripe…whoever is put into this awkward position is irrevocably lost.52

Toussaint was forced, in effect, to begin to act in the interests of a nascent, emerging post-colonial black ruling class. He became steadily more aloof and detached from the black labourers whose interests he had previously championed, even crushing a revolt by them as he tried to rebuild the colony’s prosperity through forced military-style plantation labour.

However, the manner in which Toussaint became “irrevocably lost” was not through any corruption of power—like the Jacobin Robespierre, the black Jacobin Toussaint was quite “incorruptible” in that sense. Rather the rise of Napoleon meant a return to the imperial status quo, and eventually the attempted restoration of slavery on Saint Domingue. Though the French armies which invaded under Napoleon’s brother-in-law General Leclerc were ultimately defeated by the black rebel army, Toussaint’s failure to declare independence from France meant he lost the support of his generals, before being tricked, captured and taken to die in a French prison in 1803. It fell to the likes of his lieutenant Jean-Jacques Dessalines to win Haiti’s war of independence through a devastating bloody guerrilla war which left the country in ruins.

Yet for James, what was remarkable about Toussaint’s decline and fall was his hope that the “insolvable dilemma”, the backwardness and material impoverishment of Saint Domingue, might be overcome through developing a relationship with French metropolitan imperial culture and capital—something Dessalines, with his slogan, “Eternal hatred to France”, never countenanced. As James noted:

Toussaint could not believe that the French ruling class would be so depraved, so lost to all sense of decency, as to try and restore slavery. His grasp of politics led him to make all preparations, but he could not admit to himself and to his people that it was easier to find decency, gratitude, justice and humanity in a cage of starving tigers than in the councils of imperialism.53

It was to be a fatal error but, because for James, “Toussaint’s error sprang from the very qualities that made him what he was”, his place in world history as a tragic hero of colonial enlightenment was assured.54 Toussaint’s “allegiance to the French Revolution and all it opened up for mankind in general and the people of San Domingo in particular, this had made him what he was. But this in the end ruined him”.55 James was fascinated by Toussaint’s cultural dilemma. It was not only that, as a black colonial subject, he had experienced (and personally overcome) a similar identity crisis to that afflicting Toussaint. It was also because he was simultaneously thinking about his own relationship, and those of his fellow black radical Pan-Africanists like George Padmore, to the Russian Revolution. By the 1930s the revolution was itself spiralling into counter-revolution, as he outlined in his 1937 history of “the rise and fall of the Communist International”, World Revolution. In 1934 James had portrayed the human personality and character of Toussaint in a play which was later performed on London’s West End with the radical black American singer and actor Paul Robeson in the title role. James’s Toussaint Louverture was the first time a play about the Haitian Revolution had been staged in Britain and the first time in the history of British theatre that black professional actors had starred in a play written by a black playwright.56 An outstanding biographical portrait of the tragic hero Toussaint also therefore runs throughout The Black Jacobins itself, demonstrating James’s capacity for exploring the psychology and historical role of an individual as well as the mass collective psychology of the slaves themselves.

Indeed, James’s skills as a novelist were given full rein in The Black Jacobins. That James succeeded in writing a sweeping epic narrative of great literary power and dramatic quality is not in doubt. At times the work seems less a work of history than an epic historical novel, comparable in its resurrection of the totality of human life to something by Walter Scott or Leo Tolstoy. Indeed, as the Jamaican historian—and one of the leading authorities on James himself—Robert A Hill has suggested:

in addition to its significance as the founding text of West Indian historical scholarship, The Black Jacobins ranks as the great epic of West Indian literature. Like Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which describes the epic story of Russia’s struggle during the Napoleonic wars, James’ account of the Haitian Revolution expresses a parallel national vision for the West Indies.57

Yet perhaps The Black Jacobins owes as much to Leon Trotsky as it does to Leo Tolstoy. Trotsky’s biographer, Isaac Deutscher, has argued that “to Marx’s minor historical works, The Class Struggle in France, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, and The Civil War in France, Trotsky’s History stands as the large mural painting stands to the miniature”.58 The Black Jacobins stands as one of the few works of Marxist historical literature that can take their place alongside Trotsky’s monumental “mural painting”, and the spirit of Deutscher’s discussion of Trotsky’s History should also be considered with respect to James’s work:

Whereas Marx towers above the disciple in the power of his abstract thought and gothic imagination, the disciple is superior as epic artist, especially as master of the graphic portrayal of masses and individuals in action. His socio-political analysis and artistic vision are in such concord that there is no trace of any divergence. His thought and his imagination take flight together. He expounds his theory of revolution with the tension and the élan of narrative; and his narrative takes depth from his ideas. His scenes, portraits, and dialogues, sensuous in their reality, are inwardly illuminated by his conception of the historical process … The History is his crowning work, both in scale and power and as the fullest expression of his ideas on revolution.59


“To articulate the past historically”, Benjamin suggested, “means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger”.60 The dangerous moment faced by the people of Haiti themselves today has rightly brought the collective memory of the Haitian Revolution back once again to the fore. It is impossible to understand the current catastrophe unless one understands how the Haitian people have never been forgiven by the great imperialist powers for their part in the destruction of the highly profitable Atlantic slave system. That Haiti, once the source of many of the world’s riches, has been reduced to one of the poorest places on earth gives some measure of the cruel revenge that has been exacted. James, one suspects, would not have been surprised by the recent American occupation of Haiti in the name of “security” and restoring “order”. As he noted in The Black Jacobins, in words reminiscent of something out of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, “Where imperialists do not find disorder they create it deliberately…they want an excuse for going in. But they can find that easily and will go in even without any”.61

Yet perhaps part of the reason why The Black Jacobins has established itself as a classic work of historical literature is precisely because of when it was written. The 1930s were a time of great crisis and danger, when the threat of fascism was greater than ever and growing rivalries among the great powers pushed them seemingly inexorably towards another inter-imperialist war.62 As one of the most significant and creative revolutionary Marxists and one of the leading Pan-Africanist theorists and activists based in imperial Britain during the 1930s, James seized hold of the memory of the Haitian Revolution to write what Seymour Drescher once described as “one of the historiographical manifestoes of anti-imperialist scholarship on the eve of decolonisation”.63

James’s historical articulation of Haiti’s revolutionary past was an outstanding theoretical contribution to understanding what Marxists then called “the colonial question”. The heart and soul of The Black Jacobins is a profound meditation on the principles and qualities necessary for revolutionary leadership in the struggle for colonial liberation.64 During the 1930s James himself was the very model of the anti-colonialists he praised in The Black Jacobins, those revolutionaries “who could combine within their single selves the unrelenting suspicion and ruthless ferocity necessary to deal with imperialism and yet retain undimmed their creative impulse and their respect for the attainments of the very culture they fought so fiercely”.65

James had Pan-African resistance to European colonialism at the very forefront of his mind while writing The Black Jacobins, whether the heroic arc of labour rebellions which swept the British Caribbean during the 1930s, or the resistance to Mussolini’s barbaric invasion and occupation of Ethiopia in 1935. He ended the work with a stress on the opportunities for revolution that he imagined would open up in colonial Africa if indeed Europe was plunged into another great inter-imperialist conflict.66 In 1935 Copperbelt mine workers in what is now Zambia but was then the British colony of Northern Rhodesia had taken strike action. As Frederick Cooper has noted, the strike “was organised without benefit of trade unions, and it spread from mine to mine, from mine town to mine town, by personal networks, dance societies, religious organisations, and eventually mass meetings. The movement embraced non-miners in the towns, women as well as men”.67 For James, the parallel between the movement of Zambian Copperbelt miners and the seditious midnight gatherings of enslaved Africans of French Saint Domingue could not have been clearer. He ended The Black Jacobins insisting that the Haitian Revolution pointed to the future for the African continent: “The imperialists envisage an eternity of African exploitation: the African is backward, ignorant…they dream dreams…the blacks of Africa are more advanced, nearer ready than were the slaves of San Domingo”.68

In 1938 few were willing to contemplate even the possibility of decolonisation in Africa. The New Statesman’s reviewer bluntly declared that reading predictions of “the coming upheavals” in colonial Africa in The Black Jacobins had “badly shaken” her “faith in Mr James’s intelligence and acumen”. Over 70 years later the same publication hailed The Black Jacobins as their first choice “Red Read”, heading up a list of “our top 50 books guaranteed to inspire” and “that will change your life”. This gives some indication of what the inspiring work, ever since its first publication, has meant to those involved and engaged in all manner of liberation struggles.69

In The Black Jacobins James fused classical and Marxist scholarship to resurrect a vivid panorama of the Haitian Revolution. He stressed that it was not simply the greatest event in the history of the Caribbean, but took its place alongside the English, American and French Revolutions as one of the great world-historical revolutions in its own right, a revolution which had forever transformed the world and laid the foundation for the continuing struggle for universal human rights. As James noted, “The black Jacobins of San Domingo were to make history which would alter the fate of millions of men and shift the economic currents of three continents”.70 Indeed, in many ways the Haitian Revolution went further in its commitment to universal emancipation than any of these other
revolutions: it was, as Paul Foot once noted, “perhaps the most glorious victory of the oppressed over their oppressors in all history”.71

In 1939, after his move to America and meeting Trotsky for discussions on black liberation, James wrote “Revolution and the Negro” for the Trotskyist journal New International. In it James attempted to bring home some of the main lessons for revolutionary Marxists that he thought should be taken from studying the history of the Haitian Revolution:

The Negro’s revolutionary history is rich, inspiring, and unknown. Negroes revolted against the slave raiders in Africa; they revolted against the slave traders on the Atlantic passage. They revolted on the plantations … The only place where Negroes did not revolt is in the pages of capitalist historians.

All this revolutionary history can come as a surprise only to those who, whatever International they belong to, whether Second, Third, or Fourth, have not yet ejected from their systems the pertinacious lies of Anglo-Saxon capitalism. It is not strange that the Negroes revolted. It would have been strange if they had not.

But the Fourth International, whose business is revolution, has not to prove that Negroes were or are as revolutionary as any group of oppressed people. That has its place in agitation. What we as Marxists have to see is the tremendous role played by Negroes in the transformation of Western civilisation from feudalism to capitalism. It is only from this vantage-ground that we shall be able to appreciate (and prepare for) the still greater role they must of necessity play in the transition from capitalism to socialism.72


1: Thanks to Charles Forsdick for comments on this article in draft.

2: Dubois, 2004, pp3, 13. Dubois’s work, Avengers of the New World, is an excellent account of the Haitian Revolution, both scholarly and accessible.

3: On the first US military occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934, see Renda, 2001.

4: See for example, Hallward, 2008.

5: For a brief introduction to James, outlining some of his early political thought which might be useful to understand some of the historical context in which he wrote The Black Jacobins, see Høgsbjerg, 2006b. For a brief critical review of two recent pieces of “James-scholarship”, see Høgsbjerg, 2009a. The lectures James gave in Montreal during the late 1960s, including one on “The Haitian Revolution in the Making of the Modern World”,have been recently published. See Austin (ed), 2009.

6: Quoted in James, 2001, pxiii. That Walvin himself is no Marxist might be seen by the award of an OBE for the part he played in the official British commemoration of the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade in 2007. Walvin’s decision to actually accept the OBE remains, however, a little puzzling for a scholar who spent the best part of his lifetime studying the British Empire’s greatest ever crime-participation in colonial slavery and the slave trade.

7: In terms of Anglophone scholarship on the Haitian Revolution, mention should be made here in particular of the work of Carolyn Fick, Robin Blackburn and David Geggus. See, for example, Fick, 1997, Blackburn, 1998 and Geggus, 2002. For an illuminating discussion on James and “the making of The Black Jacobins” itself, see Hall, 1998.

8: Dubois, 2004, p42. For one outstanding recent history of the slave trade, see Rediker, 2007. For more on how the Haitian Revolution was an “African revolution”, see Thornton, 1993.

9: James, 2001, pp7, 9.

10: James, 2001, p37.

11: Lenin, 1920.

12: Dubois, 2004, pp30, 35.

13: Lenin, 1920.

14: Dubois, 2004, p30.

15: Lenin, 1920.

16: Dubois, 2004, pp30, 59.

17: Carlyle, 1837, p186.

18: James, 2001, p14.

19: James, 2001, p66.

20: James, 2001, pp70-71.

21: Dubois, 2004, p89.

22: Dubois, 2004, p172.

23: James, 2001, pxviii.

24: Benjamin, 1999, p254.

25: James, 2001, p311. For more on James and Du Bois, see James’ 1971 lectures to the Institute of the Black World in Atlanta, Georgia, published in James, 2000. The Black Jacobins has many striking similarities with Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction (1935). It is sometimes suggested that James’s book was directly modelled on Du Bois’s, but there is little evidence to suggest James read Du Bois’s history of the American Civil War before his move to America in 1938.

26: Trotsky, 1979, pxviii.

27: James, 2001, pp11, 41.

28: Trouillot, 1995, pp73, 97.

29: Williams, 1994, p182. See also Blackburn, 2007.

30: James, 2001, pp41-43. Anstey, 1975, pxxi. For more discussion of James’s achievements, see for example, Richardson (ed), 1985.

31: James, 2001, p113. See Hochschild, 2005.

32: The words in quotation marks are those of James Walvin, quoted in James, 2001, pviii.

33: James, 2001, pp 74, 197-198.

34: James, 2001, pxvi.

35: James, 2001, p230.

36: See the interview with James in MARHO, 1984, p267, and also the interview with Stuart Hall in Hall, 1998, p21.

37: Alongside building up detailed knowledge of the Haitian Revolution, James immersed himself in “the French historical school of the French Revolution”. This ranged from radical historians such as Jules Michelet to socialists like Jean Jaurès and Georges Lefebvre, all of whom were pioneers of a grassroots approach to writing history. Lefebvre apparently first coined the phrase “history from below” in 1931. See James, 2001, ppxv, 331, and Hobsbawm, 1985.

38: James, 2001, ppxvi, 329.

39: James, 2001, p69.

40: Fick, 1997, p4.

41: Trotsky, 1977, p17. For James’s discussion of Trotsky’s History, see James, 1940. On Trotsky’s History, see also Callinicos, 2008.

42: This was essentially the thesis of the most “serious” official account of the Haitian Revolution before James, the American academic T Lothrop Stoddard’s The French Revolution in San Domingo (1914). On Stoddard’s “vendetta against the Negro race”, see James, 2001, p335.

43: James, 2001, p104.

44: James, 2001, pp69, 71, 73. James developed this profound Marxist insight in his 1963 appendix to The Black Jacobins, where he explained how, in language that perhaps only a black West Indian can really get away with, “the sugar plantation has been the most civilising as well as the most demoralising influence in West Indian development”. “The Negroes, therefore, from the very start lived a life that was in its essence a modern life. That is their history-as far as I have been able to discover, a unique history.” James, 2001, pp305-306. For more on the relationship between capitalism and slavery, see Blackburn, 1988, pp376-377, and Callinicos, 2009, p113.

45: Trotsky, 1977, pp19-20, 33.

46: James, 1977, p66.

47: James, 2001, p113.

48: James, 2001, p120. That African ideas of kingship, which were often far more contradictory and complex than might appear, were ever fully “transcended” during the Haitian Revolution is unlikely. See Thornton, 1993.

49: James, 2001, p161. A film, Toussaint, is currently in production, being directed by Danny Glover, while the great novelist of the Haitian Revolution, Madison Smartt Bell, has written a biography of Toussaint-Bell, 2007. For Toussaint’s writings, see Nesbitt
(ed), 2008.

50: James, 2001, p174.

51: James, 2001, p224.

52: Engels, 1956, pp138-9.

53: James, 2001, p229.

54: James, 2001, p234. For more on James’s construction of Toussaint as a “tragic hero of colonial enlightenment” in The Black Jacobins, see Miller, 2001, and Scott, 2004

55: James, 2001, p236.

56: For more on the context of the production of the play, see Chambers, 2009.

57: Hill, 1999, p255. For more on the epic nature of James’s vision of history, see Schwarz, 2003.

58: Deutscher, 1979, p219.

59: Deutscher, 1979, pp219-220, 230.

60: Benjamin, 1999, p247.

61: James, 2001, p232.

62: Indeed, James directly alluded to the “fever and fret” of the Spanish Civil War in his 1938 Preface, recalling the months he had just spent down in Brighton, on England”s south coast, in the winter of 1937, writing up The Black Jacobins. “It was in the stillness of a seaside suburb that could be heard most clearly and insistently the booming of Franco’s heavy artillery, the rattle of Stalin’s firing squads and the fierce shrill turmoil of the revolutionary movement striving for clarity and influence.” James, 2001, pxx.

63: Quoted in James, 2001, pviii.

64: The question of revolutionary leadership in general runs through the work. “The slopes to treachery from the dizzy heights of revolutionary leadership are always so steep and slippery that leaders, however well intentioned, can never build their fences too high.” James, 2001, p264.

65: James, 1938, p288.

66: For a brief discussion of how Mussolini’s war on Ethiopia shaped The Black Jacobins, see Høgsbjerg, 2006a.

67: Cooper, 1996, p58.

68: James, 2001, p303.

69: Grierson, 1938; “Red Reads”, New Statesman, 10 August 2009.

70: James, 2001, p20.

71: Foot, 1979. For more on the Haitian Revolution and “Universal Emancipation”, see Dubois, 2004, and Nesbitt, 2008.

72: James, 1939, p77. For some of the context of the writing of this article, see Høgsbjerg, 2009b.


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