This year marks the seventieth anniversary of C.L.R. James’s The Black Jacobins: Touissaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. This classic account of the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1803 is one of the greatest books in the twentieth century. Its title refers to the Jacobins, the most radical element within the French Revolution who propagated, says the Oxford English Dictionary, “extreme democracy and absolute equality” — principles fully embraced by the slaves who made history’s first and only successful slave revolution in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, which afterwards they renamed Haiti.
The Black Jacobins is a masterpiece because it’s first and foremost a Movement book, intended to give inspiration to the then-struggling forces of pan-African revolt against European colonialism and racial oppression. James (1901-1989), himself a child of a middle-class black family in the British Caribbean colony of Trinidad, knew from direct experience the intimate relationship between history and contemporary social struggle. He said he wrote The Black Jacobins listening “most clearly and insistently” to “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.” And clarity and influence it gave aplenty to the national liberation movements that overthrew Europe’s rapacious exploitation of Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean after World War II.
One note of clarity The Black Jacobins struck concerned the working class’s relationship to imperialism. In 1936 James wrote a play, also entitled The Black Jacobins, performed in London with the African American actor and radical Paul Robeson in the role of Toussaint L’ouverture, the slave leader of the revolution. It was intended to prompt the British labor movement to take a critical stance toward the Western imperialist collusion with Mussolini’s fascist invasion of Ethiopia. In his essay “Abyssinia and the Imperialists,” James underscored how imperialism destroyed the working class: “. . . all the money that the imperialists are making out of the country has to be paid for by labour, and the real sufferers are those millions who, unprotected by trade union organisation or any sort of organised public opinion, are driven off their lands, down into mines at a shilling a day, or working above ground for fourpence a day as in Kenya. . . .”
In order to prevent this destruction, which soon spread into the genocidal conflagration of a world war, James extracted two important insights from the Haitian Revolution.
One was the fact that the slaves recognized and organized themselves as a class of workers exploited under modern capitalist conditions: “. . . 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.”
Another was the internationalism of this class whose collective labor made the wealth of empires and nations. The titles of chapter four (“The San Domingo Masses Begin”) and chapter five (“And the Paris Masses Complete”) run together to make a single sentence, driving home the solidarity that workers forged between Haiti and France: “‘Servants, peasants, workers, the labourers by the day in the fields’ all over France were filled with a virulent hatred against the ‘aristocracy of the skin.’ There were so many moved by the sufferings of the slaves that they had long ceased to drink coffee, thinking of it as drenched with the blood and sweat of men turned into brutes.” Touissaint himself acquired the knowledge for his prescient military and political insights — “a thorough grounding in the economics and politics, not only of San Domingo, but of all the great empires of Europe which were engaged in colonial expansion and trade” — from the work of Abbé Raynal, the French abolitionist writer who laid the intellectual groundwork for the French Revolution.
Both of these revolutions however soon foundered because this solidarity was not preserved and developed further. Although “[t]here were Jacobin workmen in Paris who would have fought for the blacks against Bonaparte’s troops,” once in power Touissaint “ignored the black labourers” and tried to appease the white elites by executing General Möise, his adopted nephew who, after him, “symbolised the revolution.” The French counterrevolutionary force, on the other hand, sent by Napoleon Bonaparte, sought to reinstate slavery in Haiti by massive military intervention. After his forces captured Toussaint through deception, Bonaparte shipped him off to the Fort-de-Joux prison in France’s Jura mountains, where he died of “ill-treatment, cold and starvation.” Despite these serious setbacks, the embattled black Jacobins managed to defeat Napoleon’s mighty army, prompting him to abandon plans for a North American empire and negotiate the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the U.S. and gave the latter a Caribbean gateway through the port of New Orleans. W.E.B. DuBois, the great African American scholar and activist, said it was Toussaint and the Haitian Revolution that “intensified and defined the anti-slavery movement, became one of the causes, and probably the prime one, which led Napoleon to sell Louisiana for a song, and finally, through the interworking of all these effects, rendered more certain the final prohibition of the slave-trade by the United States in 1807.”
Published three years before The Black Jacobins, when African miners in Northern Rhodesia’s Copperbelt went on strike against unfair British colonial taxes, DuBois’s Black Reconstruction in America argued that the massive flight of slaves from the Southern plantations during the Civil War constituted a “general strike” of workers: “This was not merely the desire to stop work,” but “a strike on a wide basis against the conditions of work,” which “directly involved in the end perhaps a half million people.” Black Reconstruction, inspired by the struggles of black workers, helped overthrow the elitist, racist theories dominant in American history and led to critical race studies — showing that the action of workers can remake ideas and scholarship.
James and DuBois were colleagues in the Pan-African movement and practiced working-class solidarity in deed as much as in words: James spent time in the United States aiding sharecroppers in Missouri, putting together a widely circulated pamphlet of their struggle in their own words (Down with Starvation Wages in Southeast Missouri), and DuBois co-founded the National Association of the Advancement of the Colored People (NAACP), which defended workers from lynching and legal railroading (for example, in 1919 when hundreds of black sharecroppers in Elaine, Arkansas were massacred by white mobs and federal troop after they had tried to organize a union). James praised Black Reconstruction as “magnificent.” Its great virtue, he said, was that that it “recognized that the Negroes in particular had tried to carry out ideas that went beyond the prevailing conceptions of bourgeois democracy” at the time of the Civil War and Reconstruction. This is the great lesson of The Black Jacobins, too. The term “Jacobin” had taken on authoritarian connotations because the French Jacobin leadership stopped listening to the workers and commoners and shut down their radical organizations — much as Toussaint in power lost touch with the Haitian workers. In short, the Haitian and French Revolutions — as well as Reconstruction in the post-Civil War South — failed to go as far as they could because the new rulers destroyed, in the interest of capital and empire, the original conceptions of democracy that the self-activity of workers had made possible.
Today we are facing a similar destructive moment in history. The presidential election is poisoned with anti-immigrant rhetoric seeking to divide and decimate the working class. Following the Bonapartist model, the American Empire is perpetrating this class destruction in Haiti as well. According to the Haiti Information Project, “the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency… helped create the Revolutionary Front for Advancement and Progress of Haiti” (FRAPH) who are “responsible for the rape and murder of thousands of Haitians after a brutal military coup forced then president Jean-Bertrand Aristide into exile in 1991.” U.S. aid to Haiti’s brutal police force has reached $40 million. In this dark hour of ongoing crisis, reading both The Black Jacobins and Black Reconstruction could give us the necessary “clarity and influence” to sustain our struggle against this new moment of war and imperialism.
Manuel Yang is a graduate student of history at the University of Toledo, and adjunct faculty in the Humanities/Social Science Division at Monroe County Community College in Michigan.
This is a slightly expanded version of an article that appears in the February 2008 issue of UE News.