Haiti’s forgotten Revolution and C.L.R. James

by Aug 6, 2012All Articles


The great Trindadian intellectual C.L.R. James’s The Black Jacobins is a decidedly partisan text, it has no pretensions of grandiose academic objectivity or liberal ‘fairness’. It is a great Marxist text, not great in the sense of providing a new insight into the inner workings of capital or alienation in late capitalism, but great in the manner in which that demonstrates the fundamental unity between theory and praxis at the heart of the Marxist tradition. In contrast to some of the other great historical works located within in the Marxist tradition, it does not contain the grand historical range and vision of Hobsbawm or display the detailed social imagination, empathy and lyrcism of E.P. Thompson.

But it is certainly an inspirational text, I didn’t feel like sitting down and reading Althusser or Lukacs after completing the book, I wanted to take to the streets. James’s closing words are a call for action, albeit with a measure of ‘realism’:“In reality from the very nature of its system of production for profit it strangles the real worth of the continent-the creative capacity of the African people. The African faces a long and difficult road and he will need guidance. But he will tread it fast and walk upright” (James, 1938: 377). Here, James’s internationalism stands out, he is calling for the liberation of Africa, by Africans as a key component of world class struggle, something missing or deemed impossible by many more orthodox Marxists, during the late 1930s.

Like many of the great Marxist theorists, James was not a thinker -safely located in the comfortable elitism of the academy. He envisioned himself and unlike several other Marxists-actually was was an active political militant, who was part of an international movement, not-yet-defeated. In this, he joins the ranks of such figures as Gramsci, Luxemburg, Trotsky, Lenin and of course Fanon. As opposed to the Western Marxist tradition comprising among others of the likes of Althusser, Sartre, Marcuse, Benjamin and the always morbid Adorno, which Perry Anderson castigated in his introductory book Considerations of Western Marxism (1976) for the tradition’s very distance from active politics and retreat into the safety of culture. In fact, the inspiration and theoretical framework for the Black Jacobins, was provided by Trotsky’s magisterial work, The History of the Russian Revolution (1932).

In what is perhaps the example of ‘partisan history’ –par excellance. Trotsky in the preface to the aforementioned work, assessing the great revolution of 1917, in which he was perhaps the most important figure, a decade later in exile off the coast of Turkey notes: “The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historical events”; He adds that in a revolution “old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses” and they thus remove the existing order and create ‘the initial ground work ‘ for the new order’ (Trotsky, 1932:x). Trotsky asserts, “(T)he history of a revolution is for us first of a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny”. Furthermore, “(T)he masses go into a revolution not with a prepared plan of social reconstruction, but with a sharp feeling that they cannot endure the old regime”(Trotsky,1932:xi). Trotsky goes on to make several other key theoretical points on the nature of the relation between ‘mass consciousness’, ‘political processes’ and the role of ‘the revolutionary’ party and leadership in relation to the masses. He also makes a note on his own authorial bias in relation to the ‘objective nature’ of his historical project. Trotsky rejects the vision of the ‘conciliatory historian’- who attempts to understand, rather than judge the opposing sides, instead he claims the mantle of ‘scientific consciousness’ in his quest for an understanding of the ‘historical facts’ and an understanding of the shift in the consciousness of the masses and an exposure of “the causal laws of their movement” (Trotsky, 1932: xiii).

James draws heavily from this theoretical framework and vision- in the Black Jacobins, he shuns the role of the disinterested observer and rather takes the role of an active participant, even if he as at the same time attempting to understand the ‘mass consciousness’ of the Haitian masses. And in particular the role of the leaders of the revolution, in the overthrow of slavery and victory over the great powers of Britain, Spain, Absolutist and later Bonapartist France1. The Haitain Revolution, James depicts not as war of armies, but as a war of peoples, a class war of sorts pitting the blacks and mulattoes again whites (James, 1938,359). Of course the most obvious difference between the two texts (apart from subject matter) is that Trotsky actually lived through and played a leading role in the Bolshevik Revolution and James missed the Haitian Revolution by over a century, but in terms of style it appears at times, as if James was a first-hand witness. He refers to Haitian revolutionary leader and ex-slave Toussaint Louvertre, by his first name. James speaks of “his (Toussaint’s) extraordinary abilities, his silence, his sharpness of tongue when he spoke …” (James, 1938:148) as if he was a confident of Toussaint or at least had some acquaintance of him. But in fact James’s bases much of his analysis and characterization of Toussaint, on Toussaint’s personal correspondences (James, 1938:124).

I propose a reading, albeit perhaps an anachronistic reading, of the Black Jacobins in accordance with the French philosopher Alain Badiou‘s notion of the event. The event brings as a maximal ‘true’ consequence of its own existence “the existence of of an in-existent”(Badiou, 2006:286). This can be viewed as through the rupture of the established order, in other words the event, subjecthood and political subjecthood at that is created where it previously did not exist. This event produces a truth through which subjecthood is created through an intervention with an operator of fidelity to an event (Hallward, 2003:14). What can be termed “fidelity” is the choice to to relate “from the perspective of the eventual… supplement”(Badiou,2001:40-4) .

Both the Canadian philosopher Peter Hallward and Badiou himself, have both made arguments that the Haitian Revolution itself counts as a such an event along with such other word-historical moments as the French Revolution and the Bolshevik Revolution. Hallward asserts in another essay that “(I)f the French Revolution stands as the great political event of modern times the Haitian revolution must figure as the single most decisive sequence of that event” ( Hallward, 2004:2). The three principles of the French Revolution, liberty, equality and fraternity2, were most radically affirmed in Haiti, where slaves rose up and literally threw off their shackles. What, could be a better example of an inexistant forcing itself into existence as active political agents, than a slave revolt? Where blacks regarded as sub-human defeated the greatest military power of the age. Subjecthood here was “forced through direct action”, rather than negotiated or ‘granted’, freedom was won by the Haitians, not granted by the French (Hallward, 2004:4).

James makes the point constantly in the books, even beginning with the title, that Haitian blacks saw their own revolution as a crucial part of the French one, that they were inspired by actions of the Parisian masses and displayed a remarkable loyalty to the Republican ideal, despite the machinations of the French bourgeoisie and the reluctance or inability of the French leaders to recognize the humanity- let alone the agency of blacks. One incident that deserves mention, recollected in the book, took place during Bonaparte’s invasion of Haiti and Dessalines’s eventual declaration of independence. In this particular case, black soldiers fighting under Dessalines against Bonaparte’s ‘revolutionary’ army, sung the French revolutionary anthem La Marseillaise, which confused and demoralized the French troops who conceived themselves as fighting for the revolutionary cause in Haiti (James, 1938:357). Perhaps a more recent equivalent of this masterful psychological warfare, was Mandela singing Die Stem in a Springbok rugby jersey during the 1995 Rugby World Cup, which was romanticized with supreme pathos in that the appalling bit of ‘Rainbow Nation’ nostalgia Invicticus.

The reason I propose here that the Black Jacobins should be read here, in accordance with Badiou’s notion of the event is legitimated by two key concepts, one of the nature of ‘historical silencing’ to borrow a phrase from Michel-Ralph Trouillot and secondly to do with the nature of fidelity to the event, present in James’s own political activism and the historical context of the book. Trouillot’s succinctly proves in his book Silencing the Past (1995), that the reason for the Haitian revolution’s exclusion from the revolutionary canon that included the American and French Revolutions, was that it was simply unthinkable for the Europeans-even for the Europeans who were opposed to slavery. This was a result of the theoretical frameworks and intellectuals context they operated within, which were simply unable to conceive that black slaves could have defeated the most powerful military power of the era. Instead they attempted to explain it by circumstance, in the form of the disease which decimated the various white armies’ ranks and by France was otherwise occupied by the wars raging through that savage continent known as Europe, at around about the same time.

James’s motivation for writing the book emerged from his revolutionary socialist ideals, he was attempting to inspire blacks to the cause in anti-colonial struggles both in the still largely colonized the West Indies and Africa through the example of the Haitian Revolution. The book is both an attempt show the power of black agency and to inspire a new liberated vision for the West Indies. It is his attempt to bring the ‘inexistent’ in the form of the Haitian Revolution, into existence within the corpus of historical knowledge and socialist debate. He probably wouldn’t have used these terms, but I think it is fair to assert that this is a strong example of how ‘fidelity’ to the event of the Haitian revolution could be maintained .

In this we should view the text as part of an active emancipatory project which surrounded both the African diaspora in the Caribbean, anti-colonial struggles in African and of course the international Socialist cause which James committed his life to. The text itself should be placed firmly within the context of these struggles, it is for this reason, in it’s attempt to shine light upon a historical event that was silenced, that I would call the text a ‘great’ Marxist work. In this the suggestion, is that the project of the Haitian revolution is yet incomplete and the good work started by the slaves all that time ago, is up to us to complete.

works cited

Badiou, Alain,2001, Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil. London: Verso

Hallward, Peter, 2003, Badiou: a Subject to Truth,Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press

James, C.L.R., 1938, The Black Jacobins, New York: Vintage

Trotsky, Leon, 1932, The History of the Russian Revolution, New York: Doubleday Anchor Books

1There was a brief period, in which slavery as overthrown in the colony of French San Domingo and it was still part of revolutionary France, albeit under the leadership of Toussaint Louvertre.

2I’m too lazy to turn them into French right now.

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