Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Review: The Black Jacobins by CLR James

The leaders of a revolution are usually those who have been able to profit by the cultural advantages of the system they are attacking, and the San Domingo revolution was no exception to this rule.

 It is the tragedy of mass movements that they need and can only too rarely find adequate leadership.

CLR James wrote The Black Jacobins with a clear goal: providing black people in the Americas with the knowledge and confidence they need to challenge the governments that oppress them. How do you identify a political opportunity, which political alliances should you make and which should you avoid, how do you identify leaders from amongst you? This goal imbues the book with a sense of high stakes and urgency, complemented by the book’s vivid writing. It’s a perspective of the Haitian Revolution from below, and I liked both the angle and how clear the author was about the angle: the way to counteract narrative after narrative of a historical event “from above” is not to craft a “neutral” history.

The strong suit of the book was the portion before the revolution. James lays out a careful analysis of the complex ways race (mulatto versus black versus white), property ownership (dispossessed, small capital, plantation owners) and freedom (enslaved versus free) intersected, and how the relationship between San Domingo (Haiti’s former name) and its colonizer, France, shaped the politics on the island. San Domingo springs alive: a bustling island rich in resources and rife with contradictions. The colonial powers are pushed to the sidelines for a change: France, Spain, England and a nascent United States haunt the island, vying for power and wealth in the area. The framing throws into sharp relief the validity of the brief, heated moments of retaliatory violence conducted by the former slaves against those who brutally exploited them for centuries and then slaughtered them in cold blood during the war. Interestingly, for all the book’s nuanced investigation of race, imperialism and class, it was surprising that gender oppression was nearly absent from the book. 

The middle section of the book was more middling. James details the movements of various military troops, and the correspondence between various political figures, and I found myself getting a little lost in the names and dates. Woven between the military history, we see Toussaint L'Overture moving up through the ranks, leading men, and making shrewd decisions. For example, he kickstarts San Domingo’s recovery after the war by taking advantage of the skill sets of white property owners. James lifts Toussaint up as an inspiring role model, but portrays him as perhaps too heroic, too out of reach: the pages overflow with phrases like “the range and sensitivity of Toussaint’s untaught genius.” 

The final portion of the book landed like a disappointing plot twist. Having built up Toussaint as this kind, thoughtful, brilliant, sensitive man, James narrates his great betrayal of the masses at the hands of their leader: “Once more the masses had received a shattering blow—not from the bullets of the enemy, but from where the masses most often receive it, from their own trembling leaders.” Toussaint’s failing (and the lesson the reader should apply to their own political work) was to leave unexplained his strategy and the need for collaboration with other classes:

But whereas Lenin kept the party and the masses thoroughly aware of every step and explained carefully the exact position of the bourgeois servants of the Worker’s State, Toussaint explained nothing, and allowed the masses to think that their old enemies were being favoured at their expense.

I agree with James, of course, about the importance of communication. My disappointment was with how little James dug into why this brilliant leader—who dined at the hearths of old black women and lived among the people as much as he could—suddenly failed to communicate with his supporters. James insists the solution was obvious and simple: “With Dessalines, Belair, Moise and the hundreds of other officers, ex-slave and formerly free, it would have been easy for Toussaint to get the mass of the population behind him.” Toussaint “destroyed his own Left-wing, and with it sealed his own doom” and yet “the tragedy was that there was no need for it.” The closest we get to understanding this fateful shortcoming of Toussaint is that he was “a naturally silent and reserved man” and that he was educated—Dessalines, who “saw no further” than his own nose was for that reason able to more clearly understand the threat of the French.

Then, perhaps aware that this nearly divinely effective leader built up throughout the book was at odds with the tight-lipped misguided man of the final chapter, James assures us ”It is easy to see to-day… where he had erred. It does not mean that [his generals] or any of us would have done better in his place.” One wonders if one can really learn from Toussaint at all: an untaught genius, doomed to fail, to betray the masses.

The masses play a strange role in James’ retelling. They are, in large part, the protagonists of the story—The Black Jacobins is a popular history, and the event it portrays was a popular revolution. But in this telling, the masses become a sea of people from which emerge a few leaders, and it is through these leaders that we see the twists and turns of the revolution. James’s primary material guides this perspective, to some extent; we have the correspondence of military officers and diplomats, but presumably fewer contemporaneous records written by ex-slaves. But James writes with certainty regarding the convictions and passions of the masses, treating them as monolithic and often instinctive beings:

The masses thought he had taken Spanish San Domingo to stop the slave traffic, and not as a safeguard against the French.

The masses were fighting by instinct. They knew that whatever party the old slave-owners belonged to aimed at the restoration of slavery.

The Russian masses were to prove once more that this innate power will display itself in all populations when deeply stirred and given a clear perspective by a strong and trusted leadership.

How did consensus arise among the masses? How did knowledge disseminate amongst the masses? How was conflict resolved? What messages resonate and how did the “strong and trusted leadership” revise their communication strategies to adapt to the needs of the masses? None of these questions are explored.

The Tragedy of Toussaint is that communication between the leader and the masses failed. What does good communication look like? A holy communion between masses and leaders, for all we know. Why did Toussaint fail to communicate? Similarly unexplored. The Black Jacobins is an instructional history missing crucial lessons we need to learn.

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