Thursday, March 30, 2006
C L R James - The Black Jacobins
C L R James’ work “The Black Jacobins” was once described to me as the best piece of history ever written. Certainly it is one of the best that this reader has ever had the pleasure to review. James looks at a short period of history (which at first glance might seem somewhat obscure) – the rebellion of the slaves of San Domingo in 1791.
In reality, this insurrection, and the battles that followed it had far reaching ramifications. James examines the revolution through the prism of class politics – not for him is this simply a matter of black versus white, or slaves against former oppressors. His starting point is the radicalisation of the French Revolution. The slaves who heard the words of Liberty, believed that it should also apply to them, and rose accordingly.
What makes the revolution fascinating – apart from heroic figures such as Toussaint L’Ouverture, is the way that the changes and battles taking place in Europe had such impact on the island and the revolution. Ultimately, even though the rebellious armies defeated invading, counter-revolutionary forces, they kept facing the prospect of slavery's return. For the emerging Bourgeois class in France, the a thriving San Domingo, producing a wealth of materials from its hundreds of thousands of slaves, was something worth bringing back the chains for.
Ultimately, Toussaint wasn’t able to see beyond the words of the French revolution, and the leaders of that monumental transformation of society destroyed him. But those who were left behind, who had been radicalised and inspired carried on the battle in a more radical form.
Defeating more armies, and a vicious counter-revolutionary movement that was ordered by Napoleon (one that drowned thousands of people in the sea for being black, and murdered many men, women and children), the blacks finally forced independence on San Domingo, renaming it as Haiti.
This review cannot do justice in such a short space of time, to such an important event. James’ great achievement is to make the reader do two things – to be inspired to try and challenge the system responsible for racism and slavery today, and to show how revolution always forces stark choices on those who would lead. He hoped as he wrote it, that a new generation of revolutionaries in Africa, fighting colonialism would learn from the events of their history. We can read it today to re-learn those lessons and be inspired ourselves.