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On the side of the slaves

The Black Jacobins by CLR James (Penguin, new edition 2001), reviewed by Selma James

June 3, 2010
5 min read

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.

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