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The Black Jacobins Reader

The Black Jacobins Reader


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The Black Jacobins Reader

Containing a wealth of new scholarship and rare primary documents, The Black Jacobins Reader provides a comprehensive analysis of C. L. R. James's classic history of the Haitian Revolution. In addition to considering the book's literary qualities and its role in James's emergence as a writer and thinker, the contributors discuss its production, context, and enduring importance in relation to debates about decolonization, globalization, postcolonialism, and the emergence of neocolonial modernity. The Reader also includes the reflections of activists and novelists on the book's influence and a transcript of James's 1970 interview with Studs Terkel.
Contributors. Mumia Abu-Jamal, David Austin, Madison Smartt Bell, Anthony Bogues, John H. Bracey Jr., Rachel Douglas, Laurent Dubois, Claudius K. Fergus, Carolyn E. Fick, Charles Forsdick, Dan Georgakas, Robert A. Hill, Christian Høgsbjerg, Selma James, Pierre Naville, Nick Nesbitt, Aldon Lynn Nielsen, Matthew Quest, David M. Rudder, Bill Schwarz, David Scott, Russell Maroon Shoatz, Matthew J. Smith, Studs Terkel

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822361848
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 01/06/2017
Series: C. L. R. James Archives Series
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 464
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Charles Forsdick is James Barrow Professor of French at the University of Liverpool.

Christian Høgsbjerg is Teaching Fellow in Caribbean History at University College London's Institute of the Americas.

Robert A. Hill is Research Professor of History at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Read an Excerpt

The Black Jacobins Reader

By Charles Forsdick, Christian Høgsbjerg

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2017 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7394-0


The Black Jacobins in Detroit: 1963


The paperback edition of The Black Jacobins issued by Vintage Books in 1963 was a timely catalyst to the emerging radical movement in Detroit in that era. The book was read and admired by most of the individuals who were active in Detroit radical politics for years, including many who would be in the leadership of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. The impact of The Black Jacobins in particular, and Jamesian ideas in general, were less a wow factor in the sense of awakening a body of enthusiastic supporters than a stimulus to the political and cultural momentum already in motion.

The most consistent and influential advocate of Jamesian thought in Detroit was Martin Glaberman. He was among the Jamesians who had moved to the city to take part in the radical labor environment that had taken shape there since the founding of the United Automobile Workers (UAW). There were numerous splits in the Jamesian camp. The first came in 1955 when Raya Dunayevskaya with the support of half the membership formed a new organization named News & Letters. A second schism in 1962 was led by James Boggs and Grace Lee. They took the name Correspondence. Martin Glaberman, Seymour Faber, Jessie Glaberman, and other James loyalists eventually adopted the name Facing Reality. All three groups had public meetings that attracted the emerging radical generation of the 1960s. Each had literature tables and a publication.

Perhaps the most influential aspects of Jamesian thought was the attention it brought to the nature of radical newspapers and the view that African American workers would be at the forefront of revolutionary change in the United States. The Jamesian critique of vanguard parties was not universally accepted, but it led to wariness about rigid organizational forms. The League of Revolutionary Black Workers, for example, initially avoided a vanguard party ideology, but when the League began to dissolve, one sector gravitated to Maoism.

James's views on newspapers deeply influenced John Watson, one of the founders of the League. His ideas about publishing grew out of a study group of black radicals taught by Glaberman. A number of other future League leaders were part of that group. Among the texts that had considerable impact on them was Lenin's "Where to Begin."

In a prelude to the agitation that led to the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) and then the League, in 1967 John Watson, Luke Tripp, General Baker, and Mike Hamlin began to publish the Inner City Voice, an agitational popular newspaper designed to air the grievances of black Detroiters. All four became part of the six-man leadership committee of the League. Watson was the editor and the driving force in the publication. Later he was elected editor of Wayne State's daily newspaper and transformed it into a de facto daily of the League. Mike Hamlin played a key role in that effort, and General Baker was the major organizer at DRUM, which was formed at Chrysler's Dodge Main plant in 1968. Baker continued to focus on in-plant organization while Hamlin headed the League's efforts to create a printing house able to produce the League's own newspaper, handouts, and books. Attorney Ken Cockrel, another of the six-man leadership group, worked with Watson to add cinema to the League's outreach assets.

All of these efforts were based on addressing the immediate problems of African Americans with a view that blacks in general and the black working class in particular would lead a new U.S. revolution. The paperback edition of The Black Jacobins helped provide a theoretical and historical framework for what was being currently experienced and observed in contemporary life. That Toussaint Louverture, despite meager resources and an undereducated mass base, had led a black revolution that defeated powerful European armies was inspiring. This history gave an emotional boost to black radicals who were aware of the tremendous power the UAW, the auto industry, and the U.S. government could amass to defeat them.

The Black Jacobins also confirmed the need to politically educate the black masses, a concern many in the Black Power movement found paramount. The story of the rebellion led by Toussaint Louverture, like similar historical portraits of renowned black figures, had not been offered in many college courses, much less in high schools. That the author of The Black Jacobins was an Afro-Trinidadian and not a sympathetic white historian underscored the ability of black intellectuals to create powerful works that spoke to general readers and specialists of all ethnic heritages. Unlike so many accounts of revolutions, the immediate outcome in Haiti had not been a glorious defeat but a spectacular victory. The Black Jacobins provided an example of how seemingly impossible rebellions could be successful, and it was a warning that military victory was only a prelude to even more perilous challenges.

A group of Detroit radicals including Baker had gone to Cuba in 1964 to speak with Che Guevara and other revolutionaries. Some of them also supported Robert Williams, an advocate of armed self-defense for blacks. The Detroit radicals found strategies that included armed defense more appealing than the nonviolent strategy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a leader they respected but did not wish to emulate. The Black Jacobins was a chronicle of fighters with whom they could readily identify.

Another aspect of the impact of The Black Jacobins on radicals in Detroit involved the historical development of Haiti. The impoverished and undereducated Haiti of the 1960s was clearly not a consequence of Louverture's victory but the result of long-term and short-term extremely hostile U.S. actions that went into effect well before the American Civil War and continued through the twentieth century. Radicals saw that rather than welcoming Haiti as North America's second democracy, the U.S. government, driven by racism and the possibility of a slave revolt in the South, had shunned Haiti and deliberately worked against its well-being.

What had happened in Haiti supported the view that similar U.S. policies were now operative wherever reformers and revolutionaries arose in the world, particularly in what was then called the Third World. The problems these nations faced were not solely due to the United States or other colonial powers, but the United States and its allies actively suppressed rebellions wherever they gained popular support. There was no reason to doubt the United States would react any differently to domestic rebels.


The Impact of C. L. R. James's The Black Jacobins


There is, as ever, an interregnum of ignorance between the time one knows of a book and when that book is read. Mine was extended for perhaps a decade. A radical book review (now defunct) featured The Black Jacobins on its front page (c. 1987) and glowed with praise for it. It was 1998–1999, when studying for a master's degree, before I used it to research the Haitian Revolution.

My mind was blown by its sheer brilliance, its prodigious research, its stellar writing, and the panoramic quality of this hidden, little-known, stunning account of the heroism of the Haitian people.

I knew, even before finishing The Black Jacobins, that here was James's masterpiece. I learned a great deal and have used his lessons in almost all of my written works of history, either covertly or overtly. Indeed, for any student of James, there must be many lessons, not least that of his lived experience, which proved one could be a committed activist, even a revolutionary, and yet be a scholar (albeit an independent one) of the highest order.

Among his lessons is one, which is quite recurrent and found not in the text proper of The Black Jacobins but in its preface. Here James writes:

Great men make history, but only such history as it is possible for them to make. Their freedom of achievement is limited by the necessities of their environment. To portray the limits of these necessities and the realisation, complete or partial, of all possibilities, that is the true business of the historian.

Lo and behold, this very day, as if by sheer serendipity, I received a book, the introduction of which was titled "White Zombies, Black Jacobins." The influence of James goes on!


C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins, and The Making of Haiti


This essay is in many respects a journey into the past, for it is now over forty years since I first met C. L. R. James and soon thereafter, intellectually and politically, became one of his many protégés and he one of my most influential mentors. Yet that distant past is very much with us today, as we see the actuality of James's views on world politics and mass movements of a revolutionary nature being played out daily.

In 1971 the seeds were first planted for the project that eventually culminated in the publication of The Making of Haiti, a study of the Saint-Domingue, or Haitian slave revolution "from below." The idea for the project came from James, but initially it had to do not with the Haitian Revolution but with the French Revolution. James's feeling at the time was that it would be worthwhile to do a study of the French Revolution that took account of the new and older social history scholarship in French revolutionary historiography. He was referring to works such as Gaetano Salvemini's The French Revolution, 1788–1792; Richard Cobb's The Police and the People: French Popular Protest, 1789–1820; George Rudé's The Crowd in the French Revolution; and even R. R. Palmer's The World of the French Revolution; not to mention Albert Soboul's The Parisian Sans-Culottes and the French Revolution, 1793–4. With regard to Richard Cobb's treatment of the sans-culottes of 1789–1795, it constituted in James's view "an analysis such as I have never seen bettered," and he was convinced that the study of the French Revolution was still making great strides.

This popular study of the French Revolution that he was proposing I write would have been directed at the youth of the 1970s, particularly U.S. youth, whom he believed had their own outlook on the world and revolutionary change. Based on his understanding of the questioning and groping for answers to the crisis of bourgeois society being expressed by university students to whom he spoke on campuses throughout the United States, James was convinced that a popular study of the French Revolution — one that focused on the role and influence of the popular movements and their "obscure leaders" at various stages of the revolutionary process, and in regard to the politics and policies of the official leadership — was needed not only for general knowledge but as some sort of guide in the uncertainty and searching that was going on in the United States at that time, both in political and historical matters, especially with regard to "the relation of past historical periods to the present day."

That study was never written, in part because I was leaving the United States for Montreal to pursue my graduate studies, hoping initially to be able to find a way of working the French Revolution project into a doctoral dissertation, something that proved to be unrealistic. Upon arriving in Montreal, my first impulse was to address my concerns to the chair of the History Department at McGill University, hoping to be accepted for admission and allowed to pursue this rather unconventional project in a very conventional academic setting. Fortunately, I was redirected to one of Montreal's other Anglophone universities, then known as Sir George Williams University (later Concordia University), just a stone's throw away from McGill, where to my astonishment I learned that George Rudé, whose pioneering work had already made an impact on my studies in the United States, had just been hired and was now teaching in the History Department. Naïvely optimistic, I proposed my French Revolution project to Rudé, who with characteristic diplomacy and tact (and a slight bit of amusement), suggested perhaps I think of some other historical moment in which popular forces played a distinctive role and on which I could write a dissertation — perhaps the revolutions of 1848 — intimating of course that this perspective on the French Revolution had already been masterfully taken on by its most distinguished historians. Indeed it had, and I believe the study James was proposing I undertake would have added very little if anything to the then recent, primarily Marxist scholarship on the French Revolution.

The outcome to this academic impasse came in 1973 in a three-way meeting in the faculty lounge at Sir George Williams between James, Rudé, and myself, with James proposing a possible alternative: a study of the "crowd in the Haitian Revolution," of the slave masses and their popular leaders, their self-defined aspirations, objectives, and forms of self-mobilization — in other words, a history of the Haitian Revolution from below, something that had not yet been done. Here were two distinguished Marxist historians, both residing in England at the time, who regretted they had not had the occasion to meet in the past and promising to do so again. Mutually acknowledging and praising each other's work, and with similar perspectives on the writing of history, they were discussing (if not deciding) my academic future from above. Thus the groundwork for The Making of Haiti was laid.

James was convinced that there was enough documentation — indeed, an immense amount of material — in the Archives Nationales in Paris alone to make such a study not only feasible but historically significant. Citing several passages from the 1963 Vintage edition of The Black Jacobins in his correspondence with a New York–based Haitian archivist, James made it explicitly clear what he meant. "On page 243 of my Black Jacobins," he wrote, "there is a paragraph which explains very fully what I am talking about":

The change had first expressed itself in August 1791 ... In the North [the slave masses] came out to sustain royalty, nobility and religion against the poor whites and the Patriots. But they were soon formed into regiments and hardened by fighting. They organised themselves into armed sections and into popular bodies, and even while fighting for royalty they adopted instinctively and rigidly observed all the forms of republican organisation. Slogans and rallying cries were established between the chiefs of the sections and divisions, and gave them points of contact from one extremity of the plains and towns of the North to the other. This guaranteed the leaders a means of calling out the laborers and sending them back at will. These forms were extended to the districts in the West Province, and were faithfully observed by the black laborers, whether fighting for Spain and royalty or for the Republic.

Here he had summarized "for the historical thinking of those days" a mass of material he believed could be examined in detail in the material with which scholars were most familiar and in new investigations. For James, the time for merely summarizing the actions and movements of the masses was long past. He insisted that every sentence of that paragraph could be made actual and vivid by a careful selection and accumulation of archival material of what the masses actually did. He went on to point to another passage, one of his few additions in the 1963 volume to the first edition of 1938. It was a statement by Georges Lefebvre in one of his mimeographed lectures on the French Revolution, given at the Sorbonne in 1947:

It is wrong to attach too much importance to any opinion that the Girondins or Robespierre might have on what needed to be done. That is not the way to approach the question. We must pay more attention to the obscure leaders and the people who listened to them in stores and the little workshops and dark streets of Paris. It was on them that the business of the day depended and for the moment, evidently, they followed the Girondins. ... It is therefore the popular mentality, in the profound and incurable distrust which was born in the soul of the people, in regard to the aristocracy, beginning in 1789, and in regard to the king, from the time of the flight to Varennes, it is there that we must seek the explanation of what took place. The people and their unknown leaders knew what they wanted. They followed the Girondins and afterwards Robespierre, only to the degree that their advice appeared acceptable.

Who, then, are these leaders to whom the people listened? We know some. Nevertheless, as in all the decisive days of the revolution, what we most would like to know is forever out of reach; we would like to have the diary of the most obscure of the popular leaders; we would then be able to grasp, in the act so to speak, how one of the great revolutionary acts began; we do not have it.


Excerpted from The Black Jacobins Reader by Charles Forsdick, Christian Høgsbjerg. Copyright © 2017 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Foreword / Robert A. Hill  xiii
Haiti / David M. Rudder  xxi
Acknowledgments  xxiii
Introduction: Rethinking The Black Jacobins / Charles Forsdick and Christian Høgsbjerg  1
Part I. Personal Reflection
1. The Black Jacobins in Detroit: 1963 / Dan Georgakas  55
2. The Impact of C. L. R. James's The Black Jacobins / Mumia Abu-Jamal  58
3. C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins, and The Making of Haiti / Carolyn E. Fick  60
4. The Black Jacobins, Education, and Redemption / Russell Maroon Shoatz  70
5. The Black Jacobins, Past and Present / Selma James  73
Part II. The Haitian Revolution: Histories and Philosophies
6. Reading The Black Jacobins: Historical Perspectives / Laurent Dubois  87
7. Haiti and Historical Time / Bill Schwarz  93
8. The Theory of Haiti: The Black Jacobins and the Poetics of Universal History / David Scott  115
9. Fragments of a Universal History: Global Capital, Mass Revolution, and the Idea of Equality in The Black Jacobins / Nick Nesbitt  139
10. "We Are Slaves and Slaves Believe in Freedom": The Problematizing of Revolutionary Emancipation in The Black Jacobins / Claudius Fergus  162
11. "To Place Ourselves in History": The Haitian Revolution in British West Indies Thought before The Black Jacobins / Matthew J. Smith  178
Part III. The Black Jacobins: Texts and Contexts
12. The Black Jacobins and the Long Haitian Revolution: Archives, History, and the Writing of Revolution / Anthony Bogues  197
13. Refiguring Resistance: Historiography, Fiction, and the Afterlives of Toussaint Louverture / Charles Forsdick  215
14. On "Both Sides" of the Haitian Revolution? Rethinking Direct Democracy and National Liberation in The Black Jacobins / Matthew Quest  235
15. The Black Jacobins: A Revolutionary Study of Revolution, and of a Caribbean Revolution / David Austin  256
16. Making Drama our of the Haitian Revolution from Below: C. L. R. James's The Black Jacobins Play / Rachel Douglas  278
17. "On the Wings of Atalanta" / Aldon Lynn Nielsen  297
Part IV. Final Reflections
18. Afterword to The Black Jacobins's Italian Edition / Madison Smartt Bell  313
19. Introduction to the Cuban Edition of The Black Jacobins / John H. Bracey  322
Appendix 1. C. L. R. James and Studs Terkel Discuss The Black Jacobins on WFMT Radion (Chicago), 1970  329
Appendix 2. The Revolution in Theory / C. L. R. James  353
Appendix 3. Translator's Foreword by Pierre Naville to the 1949 / 1983 French Editions  367
Bibliography  383
Contributors  411
Index  415

What People are Saying About This

Catherine Hall

"The Black Jacobins, with its unforgettable story of Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolution, is one of the great books of the twentieth century. The Black Jacobins Reader provides us with a rich selection of reflections on C. L. R. James's achievement and his own rethinkings over time. Whether understood as a cultural history of revolution before cultural history; a classic text for revolutionaries; a meditation on universal history; a pioneering Marxist analysis of the slave trade, slavery, and modern capitalism; an inspiration for generations of historians; an exploration of what it means to be 'West Indian'; a disruption of orthodox notions of historical temporality or a provocation to think about the relation between the past and the present; or indeed any combination of these; it is undoubtedly a book that continues to inspire many. Black activists in U.S. prisons, writers, and historians are amongst those who remind us, in different ways, of the power of a text such as this—one that wrote the history of a people supposedly without history."

George Lamming

"This is the most authoritative confirmation to date of the intellectual stature of C. L. R. James and the prophetic grandeur of his great classic, The Black Jacobins. Some eighty years after its first publication, readers of different generations and across a diversity of national origins document their admiration of the depth and spontaneity of James's analytical interpretation of the Haitian Revolution. It was the first and only example in modern history of a successful slave revolt when a population of enslaved Africans defeated three European armies and converted a slave plantation into the Independent Republic of Haiti. The nineteenth century had judged it inconceivable; and ever since it has survived a universal silence."

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