clr james the black jacobins

normblog, 17 august 2010

The poet and statesman Aimé Césaire once wrote of Haiti that it was here that the colonial knot was first tied. It was also in Haiti, Césaire added, that the knot of colonialism began to unravel when ‘black men stood up in order to affirm, for the first time, their determination to create a new world, a free world.’ In 1791, almost exactly three hundred years after Columbus landed there, a mass insurrection broke out among Haiti’s slaves, upon whose labour France had transformed its colony into the richest island in the world. It was an insurrection that became a revolution, a revolution that today is almost forgotten, and yet was to shape history almost as deeply as the two eighteenth century revolutions with which we are far more familiar – those of 1776 and 1789.

That we do remember the Haitian Revolution at all is largely due to the work of Césaire’s Caribbean contemporary CLR James. Césaire was perhaps the greatest poet of the anti-colonial movement. It was James, however, who most eloquently captured the poetry of the Haitian revolution in his magnificent The Black Jacobins.

CLR James is one of those towering figures of the twentieth century who is all too rarely recognized as such. Novelist and orator, philosopher and cricketer, historian and revolutionary, Trotskyist and Pan-Africanist - there are few modern figures who can match the intellectual depth, cultural breadth or sheer political contrariness of Cyril Lionel Robert James. He was a lifelong Marxist, yet one with an uncommonly fierce independence of mind that expressed itself both in his rejection of conventional Marxist arguments and in his refusal to repent of his politics even when it became fashionable to do so. He was an icon of black liberation struggles, and yet someone whose politics was steeped in a love of Western literature and Western civilization. He was a man whose affection for cricket was matched only by his love for Shakespeare. Above all, James was a humanist who never lost his faith in the transformative power of collective human action.

The Black Jacobins, the story of the Haitian Revolution and of its tragically flawed leader Toussaint L’Ouverture, is James’ masterpiece. An extraordinary synthesis of novelistic narrative and factual reconstruction (James originally conceived of it as fiction, then wrote a play that was performed in London, with Paul Robeson in the lead role, before publishing the book in 1938), it is a book that helped transform both the writing of history and history itself. Three decades before historians such as Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm and EP Thompson began producing ‘history from below’, James told of how the slaves of Haiti had not simply been passive victims of their oppression but active agents in their own emancipation. And in telling that story, he created a work that was to become indispensable to a new generation of Toussaint L’Ouvertures that, over the next three decades, helped lead the anti-colonial struggles in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean.

‘Men make their own history’, James wrote, ‘and 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. But if they could seize opportunity, they could not create it.’ At the heart of the book is an exploration of the relationship between consciousness and circumstances, between the willingness of human beings to act, and the material and social conditions that constrain or enhance their ability to do so.

Slaves had always resisted their enslavement. What transformed that resistance into something far more historic was another revolution 5000 miles away. The French Revolution of 1789 provided both the material and the moral grounds for the Haitian Revolution. It upset the delicate balance between the classes that had held colonial society together. And in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, it delivered the intellectual argument for revolutionary change in Haiti.

James paints a wonderfully vivid portrait of the different social classes in Haiti, their aims, their interests, their hopes, their fears, their desires and their conflicts. Les grands blancs, the major plantation owners, were hostile to Revolutionary aims and remained attached to the ancien regime. The lower-class whites, les petits blancs, the artisans, shopkeepers, slave dealers, overseers, and labourers, wanted to free themselves of aristocratic control and so were generally sympathetic to the Revolution. But if they wished to rid themselves of the ‘aristocracy of birth’, they nevertheless had no desire to dispense with the ‘aristocracy of skin’ or with the institution of slavery. The ‘free men of colour’ – the so-called mulattoes of ‘mixed race’ – who formed an important social group in Haiti, saw an opportunity to challenge white supremacy and promote political equality, at least for themselves. They, too, remained silent on the question of slavery, especially as many were themselves slave owners.

Only the slaves, who had nothing to lose and everything to gain, could push the logic of the Declaration of the Rights of Man to its conclusion. ‘They had heard of the revolution’, James writes, ‘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.’

The insurrectionists found a leader in Toussaint L’Ouverture, a self-educated former slave, deeply read, highly politicized and possessed of a genius in military tactics and strategy. His greatest gift, perhaps, was his ability to see that while Europe was responsible for the enslavement of blacks, nevertheless within European culture lay the political and moral ideas with which to challenge that enslavement. The French bourgeoisie might have tried to deny the mass of humanity the ideals embodied in the Declaration of the Rights of Man. But L’Ouverture recognized in those ideals a weapon more powerful than any sword or musket or cannon.

This distinction between the immorality of European colonialism and the progressive character of many of the ideas that flowed out of Enlightenment culture shaped not just L’Ouverture’s vision but James’ worldview too. ‘I denounce European colonialism’, James wrote in his 1966 lecture ‘The Making of the Caribbean People’, ‘but I respect the learning and profound discoveries of Western civilisation.’ Or as Frantz Fanon, the Martinique-born Algerian nationalist, put it, ‘All the elements of a solution to the great problems of humanity have, at different times, existed in European thought. But Europeans have not carried out in practice the mission that fell to them.’ Today, when Enlightenment ideas often seen as racist or reactionary because they are the products of European culture, and when the line between anti-imperialist and anti-Western sentiment has become all too blurred, the insistence of James, Fanon – and L’Ouverture – that the aim of anti-imperialism was not to reject Enlightenment ideas but to reclaim them for all of humanity has become all the more important.

The Haitian slaves rose in rebellion on 24 August 1791. In the space of twelve years, they ‘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.’ In 1803, ‘the only successful slave revolt in history’ gave Haiti its independence. ‘The transformation of slaves, trembling in hundreds before a single white man, into a people able to organize themselves and defeat the most powerful European nations of their day, is’, James observes, ‘one of the great epics of revolutionary struggle and achievement.’

Much of what James wrote in the 1930s and 1940s, in works such as World Revolution and Notes on Dialectics, reeks of naivety and romantic illusions. There is a strain of that in The Black Jacobins too. And yet today, in an age of cynicism and disillusionment, in which the idea of social transformation seems illusory, and in which the very state of contemporary Haiti seems to question James’ vision, that vision, it seems to me, is more important than ever, an aspiration to be celebrated, not denigrated.

Shortly before the triumph of the Haitian Revolution, Toussaint L’Ouverture himself was captured, tortured and executed by the French. Wordsworth composed a sonnet in lament, finishing with these words:

thou hast great allies;
Thy friends are exultations, agonies,
And love, and man's unconquerable mind.

It is as a prose poem to ‘man's unconquerable mind’, and as an unflinching portrait of the human meaning of the struggle for freedom, that we should read, and celebrate, The Black Jacobins.