C. L. R. James’s The Black Jacobins was first published in London in the summer of 1938 by Secker and Warburg (later that year it would appear from Dial Press in New York). Born in 1901, James had moved from colonial Trinidad to metropolitan Britain only six years before, in March 1932. Initially a self-consciously literary man oriented vaguely toward Bloomsbury modernist realism, and with no more than an incipient sense of anticolonial, let alone socialist politics, within these six years he had more or less abandoned his commitments to writing fiction and established himself at the center of both the Marxist debate about the Soviet Union and the prospect of a new international left, and the anticolonial debate about national and Black self-determination. These would form interlocking axes shaping the analytical and political framework of The Black Jacobins.

The Black Jacobins is undoubtedly a classic of historical literature. But what makes it so?

Specifically, the anticolonial question in the British West Indies was centrally a question about the rise and fall and social and economic effects of plantation slavery. In 1933–34, shortly after James’s arrival in Britain, there were centennial celebrations of the passage of the parliamentary act abolishing slavery throughout the British empire (the act received Royal Assent on August 28, 1833, and took effect on August 1, 1834), and in particular, of the role of William Wilberforce and his humanitarian allies in overcoming the prevailing West India slaving interests. Thereafter, the prevailing story of slavery abolition in British historiography was motivated and animated by the idea (one may as well say, the racist conceit) that abolition was largely a benevolent act of English charity toward a benighted people good for little more than service and brute labor. It was a story, therefore, that occluded, or disavowed, both the fact of the unjust enrichment of Britons and British society out of the plunder and violation of Black people for two hundred years, and the fact that the enslaved were not mere passively grateful objects of rule, abjectly accommodating themselves to their condition, but actively involved in their own emancipation.

In The Black Jacobins, James addresses himself to both these strands of racial prejudice in British historiography. But between them, his principal focus is the latter, namely, the role of the enslaved in liberating themselves from their bondage. And clearly the most dramatic historical instance of the self-emancipation of the enslaved was the Saint Domingue insurrection that led to the Haitian Revolution. For James in The Black Jacobins, the story of the Haitian Revolution, told as a revolutionary account of a revolutionary history (learned in part from Jules Michelet’s History of the French Revolution and Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution) is the story of Black anticolonial self-determination embodied in the vindicating singularity of Toussaint Louverture.

Above all, it is Toussaint that fascinates James, almost to the point, perhaps, of identification. Indeed, James was already thinking about Toussaint and what he represented as a heroic Black figure before he left Trinidad for Britain. And throughout The Black Jacobins he struggles with how best to render his protagonist satisfactorily as a distinctive historical actor—the circumstances of his condition as a relatively privileged enslaved man (James apparently did not know that Toussaint was already a free and slave-owning Black at the time of the insurrection), the noteworthy qualities of his personality, the ideas and forces that moved him, and so on. For James, Toussaint is exceptional, unprecedented, novel. He is not only a Caribbean creole and therefore neither African nor European; he is entirely modern, a subjugated product of the shaping social and economic technologies of the proto-factory sugar plantation.

But this is not all. Toussaint is not only modern (in a sense all the enslaved were obliged to be—or become—modern); he is the embodiment of that quintessentially modern subject, the intellectual. The intellectual is not merely someone who thinks creatively, but someone whose very form of life is mediated and activated through the temporal fold of reflexive being. In this respect, for James, Toussaint is wholly unlike most of his Black contemporaries, unlike Makandal (an earlier rebel leader), for example, and unlike Jean-Jacques Dessalines (Toussaint’s general and successor), both men of remarkable intelligence, courage, and will—but not intellectuals. And part of what intrigues James about this quality is that it is at once a gift and a curse: it is what enables Toussaint to see, in a visionary way, what others around him cannot see; and it is also what, from a certain point in his career of leadership, blinds him to what lies under his nose and clouds the clarity and decisiveness of his actions. Across the arc of The Black Jacobins, James endlessly troubles over the form of life of an intellectual and political leader who is struggling to do what has never been done before.

Above all, it is Toussaint that fascinates James—perhaps almost to the point of identification.

It is a central dimension of Toussaint’s singularity, of the sheer novelty of his subjectivity and his undertaking that he did not know with certainty where he was going or how he would get there. This is crucial to James’s point about Toussaint: he could not have known. He had no blueprint to guide him. And so, he could not have foreseen what the horizon or endgame of the insurrection he was leading should be. He could not know, for example, as those after him would claim to know, that he should have been heading toward nation-state sovereignty all along. We who read The Black Jacobins in our time, with a ready-made anticolonialism that Toussaint could not have had, follow him, sometimes with frustration, as he stumbles around his given world without a map, trying to find his way. He knows that his is a fight for freedom from slavery, but even with so (to us) elementary a project he has to work out through experience and reflection the idea that the relevant freedom cannot be for himself and a few select officers alone, but must be for all the enslaved. Nor is it transparently clear that he should become governor of the colonial territory, let alone its sovereign. This idea of independence is a hard-earned notion of political order that Toussaint’s educated and well-traveled contemporaries in the newly minted United States are only then beginning to work out. How and by what process he comes to the conclusions he comes to are questions that intrigue James.

Again, in trying to work out the mode of labor that should accompany liberation from slavery Toussaint angers some of his most trusted comrades (his adopted nephew, Moïse, among them), when he returns the enslaved to the plantations and, to add insult to injury, sometimes even to their former enslavers. But for James, this is not, surely, because Toussaint is cynically indifferent to brutality of plantation labor or ignorant of what it symbolizes to the enslaved, but rather because he can dimly, inchoately recognize that Saint Domingue is integrated into a wider system and that the sugar plantation is a necessary part of the survival of his fledgling state. After all, from the vantage point of decolonization, it is easy to see that de-linking from colonial capitalism might have been at least as catastrophic to Toussaint as neocolonial political leaders have imagined (or feared) in the contemporary Caribbean.

Similarly, James was well aware that he would have to meet the question of Toussaint’s supposed enchantment with Europe. Was Toussaint merely a supine Europhile, a mimic-man? Was Europe simply the hegemonic condition of his formation (as a man, an intellectual, and a political leader), or was it also, and more deeply, the motivating impetus of his moral aspirations? Given the formation of the Caribbean (the destruction of the native population, and the fragmenting cultural processes involved in the enslavement of Africans) these were unavoidable questions. And they would have had a special resonance for James as a Caribbean colonial intellectual and political activist himself grappling with the presence of Europe in his own orientations, attitudes, desires, and so on, and searching for an idiom in which to express his own distinctive individuality.

Undoubtedly, for James, Toussaint was not merely superficially formed by European civilization as a normative structure of dominant language, ideas, values, technologies, and expectations. He was also a man of the radical Enlightenment (this is the point of his seeming acquaintance with the Abbé Raynal’s famous book, A Philosophical and Political History of the Establishments and Commerce of the Europeans in the Two Indies), and therefore, as James puts it, revolutionary France constituted more than the “framework of his mind”; it was the fertile ground for the new mode of social existence—based on the idea of natural liberty—that was now justifiably open to him. And yet, notably, James is also careful to say that while Toussaint held European civilization in the highest esteem, he was not seduced by it, he conferred upon it no moral superiority. He remained undeceived by the criminality and duplicity and racism of European imperialism.

Throughout his life, James kept returning to The Black Jacobins in a revisionary attitude, as though it kept generating new questions for him—especially new questions about Toussaint Louverture. In the preface to the first edition, James had located the writing he had carried out in the context of certain world-historical circumstances (Stalin’s purges, the Spanish Civil War, the emergence of an International left around Trotsky) and indicated that had it been written under other circumstances it would have been a different (if not a better) book. For James, then, circumstances mattered. When in the early 1960s he returned to the text, the context was substantially different from the one in which he had originally written it in the 1930s. In particular, there was the new dawn of African and Caribbean independence, with its hopes and disappointments; and there was the Cuban Revolution offering an example of political sovereignty more radical than any prevailing in the Caribbean. The second and revised edition of The Black Jacobins was published in New York by Vintage in 1963 and it brought the text to the attention of a whole new generation of readers ready for a story of revolutionary change in the Caribbean. In the new edition, James introduced two principal revisions that, in some respects, gave the book a slightly different feel than the original edition.

Why did Toussaint make the errors that, from a certain point in his leadership, drove him inexorably toward disaster?

The first of these revisions consists of the six dense paragraphs added to the beginning of the final chapter, “The War of Independence,” the great climax to the story of slave revolution. These paragraphs explicitly introduce the theme of the tragic in understanding the rise and fall of Toussaint Louverture. James had been thinking systematically about tragedy as a principle of historical poetics since the 1950s, especially in the context of the work that informed Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways (published in 1953). Why did Toussaint make the errors that, from a certain point in his leadership, drove him inexorably toward disaster? Characteristically refusing the psychological description of Toussaint as a divided personality, the idea of the tragic gave James a way of situating Toussaint’s dilemma in terms of an actor at an historical crossroads caught in a paradoxical moment of incommensurable alternatives—either a return to slavery (as he knew Napoleon was planning), on the one hand, or a Saint Domingue without France, on the other—between which it was, nevertheless, necessary to decide. Given who he was, a former slave and a man of the Enlightenment, neither was possible for him to imagine. And so, from being a leader of decisive action, Toussaint became the paralyzed embodiment of a vacillation that was eventually to ruin him. Insisting as always on Toussaint’s human complexity and integrity, James urges us to see in him a man with unblemished intentions derailed neither by cowardice nor complicity but by circumstances that were at once constitutive of his predicament and beyond his personal control.

The second major revision in the 1963 edition consists of the inclusion of a now famous appendix, “From Toussaint L’Ouverture to Fidel Castro.” What connects Toussaint Louverture and Fidel Castro, James memorably argued, is not the obvious fact that they were leaders of successful revolutions. Rather, what links them is that they are exemplars of a Caribbean sensibility, and the processes that they set in motion were derived from a distinctly Caribbean historical predicament, perhaps even a Caribbean civilization. The history of the Caribbean, James said, was governed by two principal factors, the sugar plantation and Black slavery, and these together had imposed a process of social structure and a pattern of social identity across the Caribbean that differentiated it from Europe, Africa, as well as continental America. In one of the most insightful passages in the appendix, James says that the sugar plantation was simultaneously a demoralizing and civilizing institution; it introduced powers that both destroyed old moral and cultural forms of life and conscripted the enslaved into a new, and entirely modern, social existence. By this James means to point to the modern proto-factory character of the plantation as a labor regime, and to its insertion into a modernizing capitalist world system. Consequently, from the outset, as James puts it, the enslaved lived an essentially and inescapably modern life.

Writing history, for James, was an endless, recursive process of revision and recontextualization.

Less than a decade later, in 1971, James returned once more to the text of The Black Jacobins in another revisionary attitude—and once again with implications for our understanding of Toussaint Louverture. The occasion was a series of lectures at the Institute of the Black World, Atlanta, a remarkable institution that (between 1969 and 1983) served as a forum for radical Black discussions not least between Caribbean and American intellectuals. James gave three lectures: “How I wrote The Black Jacobins,” “The Black Jacobins and Black Reconstruction: A Comparative Analysis,” and “How I would Rewrite The Black Jacobins.”  Each of the lectures is a tour-de-force of originality, erudition, and lucidity, not least James’s deeply appreciative reflections on W. E. B. Du Bois’s 1935 account of post-slavery America. Perhaps, though, of most significance here is the third of the lectures, James’s reflections on what he might do differently were he to be writing the book then, in the early 1970s. Again, the context matters. This was the era of Black Power in the United States and there was a deeper sense (certainly than was the case in the 1930s or even in the early 1960s) that Black history should be written, not from the perspective of elites, but from the point of view of the folk, of the ordinary and largely unremembered men and women who make history from below. James, who had been teaching at Federal City College in Washington, D.C., as a visiting professor, was clearly attuned to this critique of the historiographical mode of heroic agency. In his lecture, he tells his audience that were he writing The Black Jacobins then, he would not write it from the perspective of Toussaint and the other well-known leaders, but from that of the nameless slave rebels who actually made the revolution what it was.

Writing history, for James, was an endless, recursive process of revision, of recontextualization, of asking again and again what the present circumstances enabled him to see or urged him to emphasize of the past he was recounting.

The Black Jacobins is undoubtedly a classic of historical literature. But what makes it so? And why should we think of it as a classic not only of Caribbean history specifically, or Black history, but rather of world history? A classic, evidently, is a book one feels compelled to return to again and again, a book read by generation after generation, not because it offers us invaluable information or irrefutable facts, but because it tells a story that reflects back to us recognizable dimensions of a human spirit struggling against vicious odds to affirm, enhance, and expand the given boundaries of our common humanity. This is what The Black Jacobins offers us in a luminous, unforgettable narrative whose attentive rhythms and dramatic contours point toward the sustaining exigencies of a common human value.

Pivotal to this sense of The Black Jacobins as an irrepressible classic, I believe, is precisely its evocation of the radical novelty and radical universality of Toussaint Louverture. As James says of him in the closing poignant sentence of the 1963 appendix, Toussaint was “the first and greatest of West Indians.” By this he means that Toussaint was literally unprecedented, unparalleled, not simply in the sense that he had no equal, but in the strict sense that he was original, singular, a hitherto inconceivable form of human life. As everyone who reads the book will immediately recognize, James’s Toussaint was not simply an ordinary figure of remote and provincial local knowledge; he was the larger-than-life figure of a heroic world-historical universality. He was a man who, while completely shaped by the constraining particularities of his degraded, enslaved circumstances, was nevertheless irreducible to them. His life and his project have a meaning, in other words, that transcends the specific framework of his time and place—or rather, in Toussaint, that specificity of time and place are lived in the dimension of universality. His vision, not given to him all at once but emerging stage by stage through the gradual assimilation and transformation of the experience of the white supremacist normativity of a slave empire, forged an inaugural idea of human freedom—namely, a freedom born of slave emancipation.

In striving to define and redefine the terms of this emancipation, it is true, Toussaint falters and, in the end, he fails perhaps, but the gift of his example has already been received, even by his mortal enemies, and that seeming failure is itself, paradoxically, the exemplary mark of his tragic humanity. This is what James so unwaveringly admires in his hero (even when he disappoints him): the audacity with which, to the very end, he claims his moral and political right to the self-determination violently denied him and his fellow liberators, and his willingness to sacrifice what Abraham Lincoln famously called the “last full measure of devotion” in the vindication of that claim. And for giving us this vivid picture of one of the exemplifications of virtue and excellence we remain indebted to C. L. R. James.

Editors’ Note: This essay is excerpted from David Scott’s introduction to The Black Jacobins by C. L. R. James, appearing in a new edition available as an ebook August 22 and in paperback later this year. Reprinted by permission of Vintage, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Introduction copyright © 2023 by David Scott.

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