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I recently finished this fascinating book by C.L.R. James, detailing the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1803. This was the first (and only?) time in history that an entire colony of African slaves revolted against their masters and succeeded in establishing independence. The magnitude of such a feat, considering all the European backlash and repression, from no less than Napoleon, is shocking to this day.
C.L.R. James is famous for being one of the most outspoken anti-colonial Marxist thinkers of the 20th Century. His political career started in his native Trinidad, took him through Trotskyism to the Johnson-Forest Tendency, which defined the Soviet Union as state capitalist. After being deported from the US, he spent his final years living in London and married to Selma James, the influential Marxist feminist and founder of the Wages for Housework campaign.
The merits of this book are obvious, it is a blow-by-blow account of how the slaves of Saint-Domingue became the free citizens of Haiti. For its profound social history, it has become required reading for post-colonial theorists, pan-Africanists and anti-capitalists of all stripes. The book is made more relevant by the ongoing injustices against the Haitian people by the US government and international NGOs, which have kept Haiti in a state of poverty and dependence. It is important to remind ourselves that the Haitians are proud people with a history of self-empowerment.
The flaws of the book are perhaps more interesting. James wants to paint Toussaint L’Ouverture in the same stripe as Vladimir Lenin, who James sees as actually a heroic revolutionary leader. From this error stem all the peculiar sections of the book where Toussaint’s character become the main focus. Most interestingly, James also criticizes some of Toussaint’s worst moves, correctly charging them as cowardly or counter-revolutionary, yet does not hesitate to explain them away by referring to Toussaint’s “genius.”
For me the bottom line is that humans instinctively desire freedom. We don’t need any authorities to create it for us, we either all create it together or we lack it. Generals like Toussaint tend to want to appeal to authority, whether Napoleon or the bourgeois Jacobins in Paris. It is a simple fact that people in power are more concerned about what other people with power think, rather than what the people think. Here lies Toussaint’s mistake, and the mistake of Leninism as well.
None of this should discourage the reader from reading and absorbing the social history behind one of the greatest popular democratic victories of all time. The point is to read history critically.
One such critical reader is my friend Daniel, who wrote the excellent review which follows, and which brings the contradictions of James’ work to life. [alex]
The Black Jacobins
C.L.R. James, 1938
Review by Daniel Meltzer.
This book was an excellent read. The strengths included breathtaking battle scenes, rousing rhetoric for freedom and against slavery, brilliant stories of liberation, and page-turning political intrigue. The weaknesses in the book come from self-defeating politics of discipline for the sake of discipline, and the heart-rending compromises that Toussaint L’Overture makes with people who see him and the republic he created as nothing more than slaves to be punished for their insubordination.
The utter brutality and injustice of slave ownership, and the barbaric treatment of slaves is scandalous. You will literally shake your head at the stories of how slaves were treated under the law in Haiti. A particularly unnerving example is the slavemasters filling a slave up with gunpowder and lighting a fuse, exploding the body of the slave, perhaps for punishment, but seemingly just as often because the slavemasters could.
The slaves began creating a series of low-level daily resistance to such a situation that is tragic and fascinating. “The majority of the slaves accomodated themselves to this unceasing brutality by a profound fatalism and a wooden stupidity before their masters. […]Through the shirt of [a slave] a master can feel the potatoes which he denies he has stolen. They are not potatoes, he says, they are stones. He is undressed and the potatoes fall to the ground. “Eh! master. The devil is wicked. Put stones, and look, you find potatoes.” Read the rest of this entry »