More about this series. Author: Rachel Douglas. James's complex and ever-evolving Marxism, taking seriously his own estimation of his intellectual accomplishments. Her extraordinary book makes a pivotal contribution to our understanding of James's masterpiece and is essential reading for all those engaged with understanding the Haitian Revolution and the decisive place of The Black Jacobins in its interpretation. James rewrote and rethought The Black Jacobins over the course of his life.
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He and his revolutionary army of self-emancipated slaves defeated the three great empires of the eighteenth century—Spain, England, and France—and finally won independence after a decade of struggle in Our rulers of course minimize the role of revolution in history, even the ones that brought them to power, for fear of highlighting the fact that fundamental change comes from social revolution.
But they hold a particular animus toward the Haitian Revolution. In its time it directly threatened the slave empires in the new world. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it offered hope of insurrection for independence to the colonies subject to the European empires. It has always been a challenge to liberals and their counsel of piecemeal reform and gradualism, which rarely if ever delivers change, and instead promises a counter-model of class struggle and revolution.
Even on the left, the Haitian Revolution does not get the recognition it merits. For example, most left-wing histories of the French Revolution, often marred by a Stalinist French nationalism, fail to understand the centrality of the Haitian colony and slavery in the development of French capitalism and the consequent strength of the bourgeoisie to overthrow the absolutist monarchy.
James wrote it in , making this year the seventieth anniversary of its publication. As he composed it, fascism swept Europe, Stalin imposed slave labor in his gulag, and Europe held the peoples of Africa and Asia in colonial bondage. Throughout his book he highlights the dialectical interaction between the revolutions in France and Haiti, particularly the interaction between the Parisian masses, the sansculottes, and the slaves.
The Spaniards, the most advanced Europeans of their day, annexed the island, called it Hispaniola, and took the backward natives under their protection. They introduced forced labor in mines, murder, rape, bloodhounds, strange diseases, and artificial famine by the destruction of cultivation to starve the rebellious. These and other requirements of the higher civilization reduced the native population from an estimated half-a-million, perhaps a million, to 60, in 15 years 4.
Meanwhile in the early colonies, merchant capitalists turned to chattel slavery to work the plantations that produced commodities and surplus for the system back in Europe. The emerging capitalist classes amassed fantastic fortunes and power that brought them into conflict with the feudal regimes, triggering the great bourgeois revolutions of the eighteenth century.
Spain, England, and France battled over control of Hispaniola as part of this plunder and exploitation of the New World. Finally in , France and Spain agreed to divide the island between themselves. Spain retained control of the eastern side of the island and called it San Domingo, while the French won control of the eastern half and named it San Domingue.
In the space of one hundred years, French merchants and planters turned San Domingue into a site of boundless horror and seemingly limitless profit that fueled French capitalism. At the time, France was ruled by an absolutist monarchy, which represented the feudal nobility but also facilitated the emerging capitalists. The lesser nobles, squeezed by the centralizing dynamics of the absolutist state, looked for new sources of wealth and became planters in the colony.
The monarchy gave French merchants a monopoly on trade, the infamous exclusif. The merchants used the trade and consequent profits to develop the port cities, the heart of early French capitalism, like Nantes, Bordeaux and Marseilles that would generate many of the early leaders of the French Revolution. The colony became the envy of all the other imperial powers—Spain, Britain, and Holland. Based on this wealth, the French bourgeoisie would overthrow the monarchy, transform all of Europe, and inadvertently trigger a slave revolution that would remake the New World and lead to the eventual abolition of slavery.
To fulfill their insatiable demand for workers, the European powers plundered Africa for slaves 12 million total , subjected them to the horrors of the Middle Passage, and compelled them into the backbreaking toil of plantation labor. In San Domingue, the slaves worked in giant labor gangs in the fields and sugar factories. The slave drivers whipped them through the course of eighteen-hour days to squeeze every ounce of labor out of them.
Under criticism, the French monarchy attempted to regulate the brutality. San Domingue became a vast killing field, sacrificing life for profit. The labor conditions were so brutal that half the slaves died within ten years of arrival. The slaves tended not to reproduce, and when female slaves became pregnant they would often give themselves abortions to prevent their potential children from being enslaved. The slave masters therefore had to continuously replenish their labor gangs with new slaves, buying an estimated 30, new laborers from the slave merchants each year.
Thus, in on the eve of the revolution in San Domingue, more than two-thirds of the slaves had been born in Africa and known relative freedom within the last decade of their lives. Like every exploited class in history, the slaves resisted their exploitation. They struggled at every step from capture to transport to the plantation. They fled to the mountains to form what became known as maroon bands, attempted to organize rebellion, and dreamed of revolution.
The very conditions of labor brought them together in a fashion that made class struggle more possible. The very divisions that the planters used to control the slaves provided them with the means for organization and coordination. Within the slave gangs, the planters appointed commanders from among the slaves to oversee their work. It was this layer of commanders that would organize the revolt and provide slaves with military leadership. The merchants and planters were creating their own gravediggers.
The booming colony nevertheless seemed stable. That rests on the constantly shifting equilibrium between the classes. It was the prosperity of the bourgeoisie that started the English Revolution of the seventeenth century.
Some sensed the coming explosion and hoped for the leadership from among the slaves to organize the fight for emancipation. One French abolitionist, Abbe Raynal, wrote:. Already there are established two colonies of fugitive Negroes, whom treaties and power protect from assault.
Those lightnings announce the thunder. A courageous chief only is wanted. Where is he, that great man whom Nature owes to her vexed, oppressed and tormented children?
Where is he? He will appear, doubt it not; he will come forth and raise the sacred standard of liberty. This venerable goal will gather around him the companions of his misfortune.
More impetuous than the torrents, they will everywhere leave the indelible traces of their just resentment. Everywhere people will bless the name of the hero who shall have reestablished the rights of the human race; everywhere will they raise trophies in his honor.
Toussaint Breda, a literate freed slave and overseer on the Breda Plantation, read this passage over and over again, dreaming of freedom for his slave brethren. The capitalists and planters Everywhere, even in the towns, the Black slaves outnumbered their white masters and overseers.
There were only 30, whites in San Domingue amid half a million Blacks. The whites were bitterly divided. At the pinnacle of power stood the governor, the representative of monarchy in the colony. The merchants and planters comprised the white ruling class of the colony, the so-called grand blancs, the big whites.
Beneath them as their managers and enforcers were the petit blancs, the small whites—the functionaries and the rabble. The planters hated the merchants and the governor because they enforced and benefited from the exclusif, the French monopoly on trade.
The merchants also hated the governor and the restrictions of the feudal order back in France that constrained their economic and political advancement.
And the small whites hated everyone above and below them. They vacillated between the rulers and the exploited slaves. While racially oppressed—famously divided up into an absurd hierarchy of categories based on skin color—the free men of color had limited rights under the Code Noir.
They were allowed to hold military office, acquire property, and purchase slaves for their own plantations. They were a subject part of the ruling class in the colony. They aspired to join their fathers among the big whites.
But the white rulers hated them for driving up the price of land and attempted to restrict their rights. The free men of color in turn resented the big whites and also despised the monarchy and its representative for enforcing a racial order that excluded their full rights as rulers. But the king even managed to alienate much of the nobility.
Famously, when Louis XVI tried in to shut down the Estates-General, the parliament he had called to impose taxes, the bourgeois delegates called together a constituent assembly to agitate for reform of the monarchy and its feudal restrictions. After the king attempted to disperse this assembly, the sans culottes—the artisan masses of Paris who were enraged by the increasing cost of food—stormed the Bastille and commenced the great French Revolution. Riding a mass movement, the assembly issued the Declaration of the Rights of Man announcing that all men are free and equal.
Within the assembly the Amis Noirs, the Friends of the Blacks, demanded equal rights for the free men of color and gradual abolition of slavery itself. But the merchants and planters who had their representatives within the assembly attempted to silence even this mild demand for reform.
This contradiction between the proclaimed ideals of the revolution and the reality of bigotry and bondage would spark the slave revolution in San Domingue. The big whites, small whites, and the free men of color split into hostile camps. The planters were nobles who after flirting with the idea of fighting for independence quickly became royalists.
They obviously opposed the Rights of Man and defended feudalism. The merchants quaked in fear that their colonial slave economy was in jeopardy from the revolution that they themselves had started.
Rights are noble and morally virtuous, but for the good bourgeois, profits trump principle on every question. They needed the connection to the French state and so wanted a limited revolution that kept slavery and the colonial order intact. The small whites immediately aligned themselves with the revolution as an opportunity to strike out against the big whites.
But they were far from the radicalism of the Parisian masses; they were adamantly opposed to rights for free men of color and the abolition of slavery. The various white forces battled out their conflicting ideas in the colonial assembly set up in the wake of the revolution. In these crosscurrents among the whites, the free men of color took up the standard of the revolution as an opportunity to win their rights as citizens. Of course, as colonial property owners, they too did not demand abolition of slavery.
They sent a delegation to agitate for their inclusion in the Rights of Man at the assembly in Paris. The Friends of the Blacks and free men of color spoke to the assembly, sending a ripple of consternation through the merchants and planters who maneuvered to suppress the question. In the end, the assembly voted for a resolution that said nothing specific about rights for the free men of color.
After a furious debate, they passed a resolution that all persons over the age of twenty-five and with property qualifications would be granted the right to vote. Instead of solving the question, this vague compromise triggered a three-cornered fight between white and free colored rulers and the small whites, many of whom would be denied the vote under the new law due to their lack of property. Oge convinced him to supply money for an armed insurrection of the free men of color for their rights.
Oge appealed not to the slaves, but to the big whites, hoping to convince them with arms that they held common interests as plantation owners.
The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution
He and his revolutionary army of self-emancipated slaves defeated the three great empires of the eighteenth century—Spain, England, and France—and finally won independence after a decade of struggle in Our rulers of course minimize the role of revolution in history, even the ones that brought them to power, for fear of highlighting the fact that fundamental change comes from social revolution. But they hold a particular animus toward the Haitian Revolution. In its time it directly threatened the slave empires in the new world. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it offered hope of insurrection for independence to the colonies subject to the European empires. It has always been a challenge to liberals and their counsel of piecemeal reform and gradualism, which rarely if ever delivers change, and instead promises a counter-model of class struggle and revolution. Even on the left, the Haitian Revolution does not get the recognition it merits.
CLR James and the Black Jacobins
But for the Taino, their hopes of finding paradise were irredeemably lost. It is only with some appreciation of the world-historical importance and inspiration of the Haitian Revolution that one can begin to understand why Western imperial powers have tied a tight neocolonial noose around Haiti ever since. Around two thirds of the people who were to ultimately make the Haitian Revolution began their lives growing up in Africa, before being captured, mostly at a young age, and enduring the violence and terror of the Middle Passage to the Americas in chains on European slave ships. It is hard to imagine worse circumstances in which to try to make history than those in which the men, women and children who were to make the Haitian Revolution found themselves. But the heroic individual and collective resistance by the enslaved Africans themselves should never be forgotten. In The Black Jacobins James—himself the great grandson of slaves—begins with the slave experience and slave resistance.