Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
It took an earthquake whose destructive impact was massively enhanced by dire poverty to rekindle interest in Haiti. Many who want to know about the Haitian people are turning to The Black Jacobins, a history of the revolution the slaves made.
Seizing on the revolution in France, in 1791 they took their freedom and got revolutionary Paris to ratify it. But as the revolution’s power in France waned, to prevent slavery’s return they had to defeat the armies of Spain and Britain as well as France’s Napoleon. Amazingly, they did so, and in 1804 the independent republic of Haiti was born.
Black Jacobins was published in 1938 as a contribution to the movement for colonial emancipation – of Africa primarily – when only a minority considered this possible. By 1963, when it was republished, it had been out of print for years but the exploding anti-imperialist and anti-racist movements had created a new market for it. Later books updating information on Haiti’s revolution have not challenged its classic status. It’s worth asking why.
First, James takes sides uncompromisingly with the slaves. While he has all the time in the world for anti-racist whites who loved Toussaint L’Ouverture and the revolution he led, his point of reference is the struggle of those who were wresting themselves back from being the possession of others. The book recounts their courage, imagination and determination. But James doesn’t glamorise: ‘The slaves destroyed tirelessly… And if they destroyed much it was because they had suffered much. They knew that as long as these plantations stood their lot would be to labour on them until they dropped. The only thing was to destroy them.’
Nor does he shield us from the terrorism and sadism of the masters. But the catalogue of tortures does more than torture the reader; it deepens our appreciation of the former slaves’ power to endure and overcome. Despite death and destruction, the slaves are never helpless victims. This may explain why strugglers from the Caribbean and even South Africa told the author that at low points in their movements Black Jacobins had helped sustain them. This quality helps make the book thrilling and inspiring – we learn from the Haitians’ determination to be free what being human is about.
Second, Toussaint L’Ouverture possessed all the skills of leadership that the revolution needed. An uneducated, middle-aged West Indian when it began, he was soon able to handle sophisticated European diplomats and politicians who foolishly thought they could manipulate him because he was black, lacked schooling and had been a slave.
James liked to say that while Lincoln was supposed to have freed the slaves, it was the slaves who had freed Lincoln – from his limitations and the conservative restraints of office. Here James says that ‘… Toussaint did not make the revolution. It was the revolution that made Toussaint.’ Then he adds: ‘And even that is not the whole truth.’
In other words, while the movement chooses, creates and develops its leadership, historians are unlikely to pin that process down, whatever they surmise from events. What we can be sure of, however, is that the great leader is never a ‘self-made man’ but a product of his individual talents and skills (and weaknesses), shaped by the movement he leads in the course of great upheavals. The Haitian Jacobins created Toussaint and he led them to where they had the will and courage to go.
This is still groundbreaking today, considering that there are parties and organisations, large and small, which claim that their leadership is crucial for a revolution’s success. There are also those who believe leadership is unnecessary and would hold the movement back. In Haiti the slaves made the revolution, and Toussaint, one of them, played a vital role in their winning.
Third, James tells us who many of these revolutionary slaves were. They were not proletarians, ‘but working and living together in gangs of hundreds on the huge sugar-factories which covered the North Plain, they were closer to a modern proletariat than any group of workers in existence at the time, and the rising was, therefore, a thoroughly prepared and organised mass movement.’
This is relevant to the problem of development that the book poses: what are non-industrial people to do after the revolution? The movement has struggled with this question for generations. Toussaint relied on the plantation system of the former masters who claimed to personify ‘civilisation’ and ‘culture’; they ultimately captured and killed him. The ex-slaves would not have it. They wanted their own plots of land, and the end of the plantation – an early form of forced collectivisation.
We know that Haiti went further than the movements elsewhere: it was decades before others abolished slavery. Haiti, so far ahead, was vulnerable to the imperial powers it had infuriated by its revolutionary impertinence.
Now, despite often racist reporting of Haitian events, we are learning that their struggle never ceased and how the present Black Jacobins have been organising. President Aristide, whom they elected by 92 per cent of the vote, was twice taken from them by an alliance headed by the US and the local elite. They demand his return. The least we can do is to support that demand.
Louis Mendee explains the real human costs of climate change for the global south.
From climate change to automation to demographic shifts, Mathew Lawrence explains the challenges our economy will face in the coming decade.
Fifty years after the Abortion Act, women are still dying from being denied basic services, write activists from Feminist Fightback
We need to tackle the patronising ideology that lets Tory think-tanks sneer at social tenants, writes Emma Dent Coad
Acid Corbynism allows people to imagine a future beyond the paltry offerings of capitalism, writes Keir Milburn
'We wanted to use a shared love of the beautiful game to stand in solidarity with those living under occupation', writes Kate Hadley.
Priti Patel's shady deals are business as usual. Enough is enough, writes Eleanor Penny
Boris Johnson is a local disaster and a national embarrassment. He must go, writes James Clouting
The global elite have been stealing from society on an unprecedented scale, writes Tom Walker
Richard Murphy says that the appropriate political will and understanding of tax can put an end to offshore avoidance and evasion
Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism
Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists
Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson
As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win
The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution
Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.
‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition
#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny
Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke
The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana
Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth
Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company
You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild
Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University
This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback
Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein
Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up
Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement
‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic
Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden
There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright
Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones
‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression
Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death
‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum
The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes