First published in 1938, C. L. R. James’s The Black Jacobins transformed the historiography of slavery studies, showing how, out from under the shadow of white supremacy and empire, Black people, with little formal education, could organize a social revolution equal to the Russian and French revolutions. His work foreshadowed the modern politics of Black Power and the Third World, and suggested a Counter-Enlightenment animated by African cosmologies. Rachel Douglas’s The Making of the Black Jacobins reveals James wrote and re-wrote his classic narrative of the Haitian Revolution, as both history and theatre, in ways that have gone unrecognized until now.
James often indicated that had he written The Black Jacobins earlier than he did, it might have been a good book, but not the classic it came to be. It was the product of research and artistry, but also of the activist experience and historical events he was living through. James observed transformations in popular spontaneity and self-directed liberating organization, which he dramatized in different global locations and moments in time using the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1803 as a proxy. A concern to help audiences trace out the next developments in their political thought infused all of his work.
That meant he had to write and rewrite. As contemporary history unfolds, not only do the community of scholars gather more facts about the past, but communities of resistance have different needs. Douglas deploys this recollection and shows us James’s ongoing process of creating and revising his writings on the Haitian Revolution, which, besides his best-known book, included theatrical works and public lectures about Haiti in the comparative perspective of global history.
Scholars of James understand that his archive contains incomplete manuscripts in the process of being edited. The many drafts of James’s writings on the Haitian Revolution must be inventoried and analyzed side by side to identify the continuities and changes. Douglas provides charts of theatrical scripts (both complete and fragmentary) with different nuances found in multiple archives in Britain and the Caribbean, New York, Washington D.C., New Hampshire, and Connecticut. Douglas uses a method that allows the reader to imagine aspects of what James wishes to add and delete by using bold and strikethrough (these are the author’s markings, not James’s) to show us James rethinking his manuscript drafts.
As contemporary history unfolds, not only do the community of scholars gather more facts about the past, but communities of resistance have different needs. Douglas deploys this recollection and shows us James’s ongoing process of creating and revising his writings on the Haitian Revolution, which, besides his best-known book, included theatrical works and public lectures about Haiti in the comparative perspective of global history.
James’s first work on the revolution was a play, “Toussaint L’Ouverture,” written in 1934—two years after he had arrived in England, and one year after Hitler came to power in Germany. As a young colonial in Trinidad, James aspired to a literary career and wished to attack the scientific racism and social Darwinism that treated Blacks as a lower race unfit to govern themselves. Essentially a narrative of race vindication, his script presented Toussaint as equal to Napoleon.
It was performed with Paul Robeson in the lead at London’s Westminster Theatre in 1936. But by 1936, Mussolini’s Italy invaded Emperor Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia, and Selassie came to Britain as an exile. Some audience members regarded Toussaint as symbolically a forerunner of Selassie. But in fact James’s thinking had developed between 1934 and 1936. His involvement in Ethiopia’s solidarity work transformed his understanding of international law and doctrines of collective security propounded by European imperialism. His perspective on the self-determination of oppressed nations also deepened.
While the play can be seen as a forerunner of The Black Jacobins, James’s observations of the Spanish Civil War and the Moscow Trials, and his expansive study of Marxism led him to conclude that the drama of history could not just record the doings of great men above society. Their relationship to the social motion of ordinary people below society had to be clarified. Not only were white supremacy and empire fighting to retain dominion over the African continent, but Black leaders aspired to rule the African working people in the name of progress, development, and a national-security discourse called “anti-imperialism.” Reflected in the conclusion of The Black Jacobins is a proposition ignored or downplayed in many interpretations of James: The role of professional intellectuals as the embodiment of culture and government had to be uprooted. James later expresses this more deeply in his advocacy of direct democracy.
A second edition of The Black Jacobins was published in 1963 with a number of small but significant edits and interpolations, plus a new appendix with the title “From Toussaint L’Ouverture to Fidel Castro.” This shifts the meanings of the Haitian events from anticipating national liberation in Africa before World War II to the search for national identity in the Caribbean and the Third World. But that was not the end of James’s creative engagement with the Haitian Revolution. In 1967 he rewrote the play as The Black Jacobins. It was performed in Ibadan, Nigeria at the onset of the Nigerian Civil War, but subsequently also in post-colonial Trinidad, Jamaica, and Britain. In revisiting the lessons of the revolution for a new generation, James amplified the role of Moïse (one of Toussaint’s generals) and put the Black sans-culottes at center stage.
Reflected in the conclusion of The Black Jacobins is a proposition ignored or downplayed in many interpretations of James: The role of professional intellectuals as the embodiment of culture and government had to be uprooted. James later expresses this more deeply in his advocacy of direct democracy.
Besides teasing out the implications of James’s editorial decisions, Douglas shows how The Black Jacobins circulated, in an underground fashion, as part of the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa. She clarifies linkages with other dynamic world thinkers in James’s intellectual legacies including the Caribbean drama and literary figures Errol Hill, Dexter Lyndersay, and Clement Maharaj; the German Africanist Janheinz Jahn; and the Italian autonomist Marxist Bruno Cartosio. We learn of the work of the Japanese translator of The Black Jacobins, Yoshio Aoki, and the French translator, Pierre Naville.
The cultural influence of James’s accounts of the Haitian Revolution is manifested in poetry, painting, and art installations in the Caribbean and Britain from the 1980s to the new millennium. Lubaina Himid is among the artists who extend the legacy of Vodou’s presence in The Black Jacobins through mixed media—but critically, inquiring whether James really understood its many contoured significance.
Scholars of James often divorce the cultural figure and polymath from the radical politico. In doing so they misinterpret tropes of “the people” in a manner that obscures the common thread of James’s historical and political projects and his literary endeavors: the search for popular and direct self-government. “The people” are not the clientele of a welfare state nor social capital for aspiring benevolent rulers seeking a place in the social hierarchy. The hostility of purportedly progressive ruling elites to independent social mobilizations from below was not one of the concerns expressed in James’s early drafts. The need to incorporate it became a driving force in his creative and political work.
Besides teasing out the implications of James’s editorial decisions, Douglas shows how The Black Jacobins circulated, in an underground fashion, as part of the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa.
Brandishing the tools of genetic criticism, Douglas illustrates how James wrote and revised texts not simply as part of his own creative development, but to recast his political insights for new audiences and changing circumstances.
Linton Kwesi Johnson, the British-based Jamaican dub poet inspired by C.L.R. James, once chanted “it’s no mystery, we making history” to describe a popular insurgent social motion. James grasped the thought well before Johnson was born, and it is a fit summation of his legacy. The afterlives of The Black Jacobins are still unfolding.