A classic and impassioned account of the first revolution in the Third World. This powerful, intensely dramatic book is the definitive account of. Jacobins. TOUSSAINT L’OUVERTURE AND. THE SAN DOMINGO REVOLUTION . SECOND EDITION, llEVISED c. L. R. JAMES. VINTAGE BOOKS. A Division of. Review of “The Black Jacobins” by CLR James . As the French revolution turned sour and the Jacobins were replaced by the Napoleonic.
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I recently finished this fascinating book by C. James, detailing the Haitian Revolution of This was the first and only? The magnitude of such a feat, considering all the European backlash and repression, from no less than Napoleon, is shocking to this day.
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 Tendencywhich 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.
For me the bottom line is that humans instinctively desire freedom. Generals like Toussaint tend to want to appeal to authority, whether Napoleon or the bourgeois Jacobins in Paris. It is a simple fact that jadobins in power are more concerned about what other people with power think, rather than what the people think. 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. 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. Millions of slaves names stolen from Africa in bondage to work in Haiti. Most would die on the slave ships or in the fields. The utter brutality and back of slave ownership, and the barbaric treatment of names 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 clg 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.
They are not potatoes, he says, they are stones.
He is undressed and the potatoes fall to the ground. The devil is wicked. Put stones, and look, you find potatoes. There is also a peculiar living of the slaves when they are so close to brutal death. The phenomenon of poisoning struck me particularly, which was apparently quite commonplace in Haiti before the revolution. Slaves used poison to alleviate their slavery at great expense of human life. Revenge poisoning by a slave of a slave master jacoins common, as was the avoidance of splitting up families by poisoning all but one son of a slavemaster so that there would be but one heir.
But so was other, more insidious poisonings. If it was heard that a master was to undertake more ambitious plantations, the slaves would poison one another until the numbers had been reduced to where such an clg would be impossible, in order to keep their workload down.
Or if a kinder master were leaving town, some of the slaves and the property cattle would be poisoned, so that the master would have to stay to sort out the mess.
It is no wonder, given the ferocity of life for a slave, that when they organized insurrection, not just day-to-day resistance, they were ferocious themselves. I was dazzled by haunting images of the oppressed Haitians finding their revenge.
CLR James and the Black Jacobins
And yet they were surprisingly moderate, then and afterwards, far more humane than their masters had been or would ever be to them. Before the revolution, Saint-Domingue was the richest colony in the world.
One particular passage left me breathless: He charged at [the French] head, passing unscathed through the bullets and jcaobins grape-shot. Under such leadership the Jjames were irrisistible.
They clutched at the horses of the dragoons, and pulled off the riders. But others swarmed over guns and gunners, threw their arms around them and silenced them.
CLR James and the Black Jacobins – International Socialism
This is an adorable factoid. The slaves initially fought the French, and Toussaint allied himself with the Spaniards, the enemy of his enemy. England, smarting from a recent defeat in North America, also wanted new colonies. Spain had the best offer on the table, so the Haitian slaves fought both the French and the English. Toussaint and the slaves did a dramatic degree turn, conquering the lands won for Spain back for the new French Republic, returning Spanish lands to France, losing land to the English, whom Toussaint expended a great deal of energy expelling from the colony.
As the French revolution turned sour and the Jacobins were replaced by the Napoleonic forces of reaction, Toussaint and his slave army attempted to stay loyal to France.
It was a pretty tense relationship with the major powers of Europe. This was not the book I thought it would be. In ignorance, I had thought of the title of the book as an analogy, where the Haitian revolutionaries were akin to the Jacobins in France.
This social revolution in France is borne out in Haiti. Toussaint was a brilliant general, to be sure, but he wanted to be a brilliant diplomat as well. This might have seemed practical at the time, but does not make for exciting reading, and is certainly not good revolutionary policy. Every inch that Toussaint gave, the French took a foot, and insulted the bravery of the slave army. Toussaint began to mold himself to the wishes of these conniving politicians, and this was especially distressing.
He even went as far as executing his cousin Moises, who was leading insurrection against the French at a time when Toussaint was attempting to make conciliations that would have deeply compromised the freedom he had already won for his people. But they had none. CLR James wished to see in Toussaint and the Haitian revolution a Lenin figure, and Toussaint at his weakest, was able to give him that satisfaction. It was the people. They burned San Domingo flat so that at the end of the war it was a charred desert.
They played the most audacious tricks on the French. To the right, dress! When the day came, they found that they had been the dupe of about a hundred laborers. The people of Haiti fought fiercely, not just with their lives, but with their deaths for freedom.
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