The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution by C.L.R. James
2008 was the year I “finally” read The Black Jacobins, maybe the greatest book by polymathic activist intellectual C.L.R. James. Jacobins joins a genre of militant historiography that begins with Engels' study of medieval peasant uprisings in The German Revolutions and continues through the ‘history from below’ traditions of E.P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class, Peter Linebaugh's The Many-Headed Hydra, and Silvia Federici's Caliban and the Witch. These books don’t purport to neutrality, but rather proclaim their narratives as interventions in the struggles of the present moment. Through their tellings, we come to know ourselves by understanding the true histories of our ancestors—witches, criminals, indentured servants, peasantry, rabble and slaves. Such works “have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past,” in the words of Walter Benjamin; their authors know that “even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins.”
That, as Benjamin continues, this enemy has not ceased to be victorious is evident from the centuries of retaliation the nation and people of Haiti have endured for the crime of accomplishing the only successful slave revolution in the Western Hemisphere.
The passage that I remembered vividly from a decade ago is found in James’ afterword: “When three centuries ago the slaves came to the West Indies, they entered directly into the large-scale agriculture of the sugar plantation, which was a modern system. It further required that the slaves live together in a social relation far closer than any proletariat of the time. The cane when reaped had to be rapidly transported to what was factory production. The product was shipped abroad for sale. Even the cloth the slaves wore and the food they ate was imported. The Negroes, therefore, from the very start lived a life that was in its essence a modern life. That is their history—as far as I have been able to discover, a unique history.”
A unique history—but also a foundry in which the modern proletariat, cut off from both its means of production and the goods it made, was formed. Black Jacobins is the history of an enslaved people’s heroic revolution—but also an account of how the modernity that was waiting for us all got built. Wherever we stand in North America’s racialized caste-system, slavery’s logic informs our social and economic structures. James hands us our hemisphere’s own history back, weaponized, as an instrument to ruin this logic once and for all. We can only lift it together.–David Brazil