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The Black Jacobins: From Great Book to Classic

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  • The Black Jacobins: From Great Book to Classic

    By Christopher Taylor

    “The role which the great Negro Toussaint, called L’Ouverture, played in the history of the United States,” W.E.B. Du Bois wrote almost eighty years ago, as might be written now despite C.L.R. James’s great book, “has seldom been appreciated.”
    Echoing Du Bois’ 1896 lament, Eugene Genovese’s 1979 claim about the historiographical marginality of the Haitian Revolution in general, and Toussaint in particular, does not map so easily onto the terrain of scholarship on the age of revolutions today.[1] Cutting across disciplines and conventional geographies of analysis, the Haitian Revolution has been a hot topic in the Anglophone North Atlantic academy for the nearly two decades—as it should have been, without question, all along. And if scholars today are more and more inclined to assume, appreciate, and investigate the impact of the Haitian Revolution on the making of the modern world, we might take this turn to Haiti as evidence for the impact of C.L.R. James’ “great book,” The Black Jacobins (1938; revised edition, 1963) on the field of history writing.

    Such an assumption would, I think, be hasty. Genovese’s complaint serves as a monitory warning for scholars building genealogies of their field. Great books do not always have great effects, at least not immediately. While the 1938 edition of The Black Jacobins was reviewed in both popular and academic publications, the book would be but infrequently cited for the next decade and a half in academic articles and books.[2] Sometimes the non-citations of James’ book approach the absurd. R.R. Palmer, for instance, would note that “Toussaint l’Ouverture led the Black Jacobins of Haiti” without footnoting James.[3] That Palmer knew of James is certain; he cursorily cites The Black Jacobins in The Age of the Democratic Revolution.[4] Sadly, Palmer’s minimal reference to James was much more recognition than the latter would receive—until extremely belatedly—from the British Marxist historians.[5]

    The academic silence that surrounded The Black Jacobins perhaps owes less to the politics of history writing and more to a pretty mundane fact: it is unclear how widely available the 1938 edition was. In a brief, brilliant overview of the reception of The Black Jacobins in the Caribbean, Aaron Kamugisha notes that George Lamming devotes so much time in The Pleasures of Exile (1960) to retelling and quoting James’ history in order to recall it to public notice.[6] Validating Lamming’s intuition, Stuart Hall recollects, “Although of course I knew of [The Black Jacobin’s] existence, I’m pretty certain I didn’t read it until the paperback publication of 1963, and so far as I remember it wasn’t prominent in public discussion. So for me, and for many others, it is in fact a text of the sixties.”[7] Keeping this reception history in mind, it is somewhat odd to read Jamaican sociologist Orlando Patterson mention, “C.L.R. James’ classic study, The Black Jacobins,” in a footnote in an article from 1970.[8] Classic, we might ask, since when?

    Patterson’s use of the term “classic” is as much performative as constative. That is, Patterson is not simply describing a stable reality, one wherein The Black Jacobins undeniably is a classic; rather, he is participating in constructing that reality. As a performative statement, a locution that attempts shifting our relation to the world, Patterson’s naming The Black Jacobins a “classic” raises important political questions about canon formation, economies of knowledge, and institutional location. It makes sense that Patterson, publishing in a Caribbean journal in 1970, would so describe James’ text, even if the text had only really been available in the islands for half a decade or so. Such performatives are bound up with the cultural politics of anticolonialism, and they are important, even vital. But what politics of knowledge are at work when one encounters this description of The Black Jacobins—as one invariably does—in more recent, U.S.-based scholarship on the age of revolutions? Is the text’s impact adequate to such a description? And what does one do with classics, anyhow?

    To begin answering this question, let’s first examine the eras of historiographical debate for which The Black Jacobins is a key touchstone. The first involves the relationship between capitalism and slavery. James’ involvement in these debates routed through the never-ending debates over the monograph of James’ one-time tutee, Eric Williams, entitled Capitalism and Slavery (1944). Basically, Williams maintains that the surpluses generated by slavery provided the capital required to jumpstart industrial capitalism; the British abolished the slave trade and slavery only after slavery was no longer required, and had even become an inefficient mode of surplus accumulation. Williams attributes this argument to James.[9] Moreover, The Black Jacobins was perhaps the first text to argue that plantation production was functionally a form of industrial production—that enslaved workers in the New World were more or less members of the modern proletariat. In sum, the notion that slavery was not an archaic, pre-capitalist residue, but a moment immanent to racial capitalism’s history, owes much to The Black Jacobins.[10]

    Second, James pioneered a tradition of history from below that understood enslaved peoples to be agents in the world-historical revolution that they created. James’ emphasis on the self-activity of the oppressed would prove central to studies of the Haitian Revolution, New World slavery, and contemporary left-Marxist theorists.[11] Finally, James’ attentiveness to the interconnections between the French and Haitian Revolutions provided a model for doing global histories of the revolutionary period that are analytically attuned to the complex interactions between race and class.[12]

    The Black Jacobins has indeed become a classic. But this fact only brings me back to a question I posed above: What does one do with a classic? I am worried that, given the current state of the field, The Black Jacobins is becoming a text that one has read but does not read with, a book dropped into a citation dump or a lit review but never really recalled to be worked over. In this case, insistence upon The Black Jacobin’s centrality or canonicity might ironically work to render it marginal: we presume its knowledge, and so neglect its text. Surveying recent work on the relationship between universal history and the Haitian Revolution, David Scott contends that The Black Jacobins “is taken up merely as one among other informational sources for the study of the Haitian Revolution, a useful introductory text, rather than as itself a theoretical intervention[.]”[13] That James’ text could be so treated bespeaks the persistence of colonial relations of knowledge production: raw empirics from the colony, value-adding theorizing in the metropole. Moreover, Scott’s contention certainly describes a tendency in another field to which James should be, but is not, currently central: the new histories of capitalism and slavery.[14]

    After some fits and starts, The Black Jacobins wound up having significant impacts on the field of Haitian revolutionary studies, the historiography of the age of revolutions, the study of capitalism and slavery, and many more fields beside. And it is a text rich enough that it could probably sustain several more field transformations—provided that scholars encounter it as a “great book,” in Genovese’s phrase, and do not encrypt it by monumentalizing it as an already-read, already-digested “classic.”

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