Rethinking The Black Jacobins
charles forsdick and
christian høgsbjerg
In September 1938, the small, in de pen dent British left-wing publisher Secker
and Warburg published one of the first major English-language studies of
the Haitian Revolution of 1791–1804, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint Louverture
and the San Domingo Revolution. Its author was the black Trinidadian writer,
historian, and revolutionary C. L. R. James, and the completion of the book
constituted the culmination of his active and productive period in Britain
since his arrival in London in 1932.1 The dust jacket informed its readers that
“the black revolution in San Domingo is the only successful slave revolt in
history,” the most “striking episode in modern history” and of “im mense po-
liti cal significance.” As Secker and Warburg stressed to their readers at the
Far from being the chaotic bacchanalia of oppressed savages, the revolu-
tion followed with precision the rise and fall of the revolutionary wave in
France; and the drama of Toussaint’s career is played out on the surface
of a social revolution, unfolding with a logical completeness to be found
only in the Rus sian Revolution of 1917.2
The reference to the Rus sian Revolution was telling, for James’s previous
work with Secker and Warburg was World Revolution, 1917–1936: The Rise
and Fall of the Communist International (1937), a pioneering po litical history
of the rise of the revolutionary movement after 1917 and its failure and col-
lapse amidst the degeneration of that revolution and the rise of a counter-
revolutionary Stalinist bureaucracy.3 Yet if the writing of World Revolution
had clearly emerged out of James’s turn to Marxism and decision to then join
the Trotskyist movement in Britain in 1934, the roots of The Black Jacobins
were more numerous and deep and were first nourished in the soil of his na-
tive Trinidad.
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