George E. Novack

Revolution, Black and White

(May 1939)

Source: New International, Vol.5 No.5, May 1939, p.155.
Transcription/Editing/HTML Markup: 2006 by Einde O’Callaghan.
Public Domain: George Novak Internet Archive 2006; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.

The Black Jacobins
by C.L.R. James
316 pp. Illus. New York Dial Press. $3.75

A History Of Negro Revolt
by C.L.R. James
Fact Monograph, No.18. 6s.

The Black Jacobins tells the story of one of the major episodes in the great French Revolution: the struggles in the West Indian island of San Domingo which culminated in the only successful slave uprising in history and the establishment of the free Negro republic of Haiti.

Historians have done little to remove prevailing ignorance concerning these significant events. Even such authorities on the French revolution as Mathiez systematically belittle the importance of the colonies and slight their influence upon revolutionary developments in France. Historians of Haiti commit the opposite error of treating its early history without proper regard for its profound connections with Europe.

One of the singular merits of James’ work is that he avoids both forms of narrow-mindedness. Throughout his book he views the class struggles in San Domingo and France as two sides of a unified historical process unfolding in indissoluble interaction with each other. With a wealth of precise and picturesque detail he traces the parallel and inter-penetrating phases of the revolution in the colony and mother country.

The prosperity based upon trade with the sugar island of San Domingo so invigorated the maritime bourgeoisie of Marseilles, Bordeaux and Nantes that they became the principal promoters of the protest movement against the old regime. The initial impulses of the French revolution touched off the series of civil wars in San Domingo which led in August 1791 to the insurrection of its half-million black slaves against the slave-owners. In their search for the road to emancipation these rebels fought against all the forces of the upper orders in the island and temporarily allied themselves with the Spanish and English. Their attitude was radically reversed overnight, however, when slavery was officially abolished within French dominions at the height of the revolutionary tide in 1794. Bound to France by this pledge of freedom, the former slaves fought heroically to defend the new revolutionary regime against its domestic and foreign foes. From 1794 to 1799 the security of France was maintained by the victories of West Indian soldiers over the Spanish and English armies.

Notwithstanding this invaluable service to the cause of France, the San Dominicans again learned that “those who would be free, themselves must strike the blow.” At first the revolution had tried to ignore them. The slogan of “liberty, equality, and fraternity” was interpreted to apply solely to whites and then to mulattoes. Only by rising against their masters were the slaves able to take advantage of the abolition edict. But even after they had gained legal liberation through the white Jacobins, the Black Jacobins won lasting social security and national independence only by relying on their own organized armed strength. When Napoleon endeavored to force the Negroes back into slavery, the San Dominicans had to crush his armies as ruthlessly as they had crushed the English.

The traditions of self-reliance and relentless struggle against perfidy forged in the consecutive wars against the white and mulatto upper classes of San Domingo, Spanish and British imperialism, and Bonapartist bourgeois reaction enabled the Haitians to maintain their national independence until the American intervention in the present century.

This book provides irrefutable answers to reactionary prejudices concerning the inherent inferiority of the Negro race. The black leaders who pass in review through these pages, though but lately emerged from slavery, show themselves to be equal and in certain respects superior to their white adversaries as soldiers, statesmen and administrators. James presents a critical and just appraisal of the commanding figure of Toussaint L’Ouverture, a coachman and slave until 46, yet ten years later master of the island, whom he ranks with Napoleon. There are no less interesting portraits of lesser personalities such as Rigaud, Dessalines, Christophe, Sonthonax, and others.

If coming events cast their shadows before, past events cast their light ahead. The question of the fate of the colonial peoples has even greater importance for the present imperialist epoch than in the era of bourgeois-democratic revolution. The Black Jacobins demonstrates how indestructible is the link between the liberation struggle of the enslaved colonials and the revolutionary mass movements in the metropolis; how their mutual interests demand support for each other in the common struggle against reactionary oppression; and how the most downtrodden and degraded slaves can respond to the call of freedom; produce great leaders; crush their enemies; and find a solution to their problems.

The high price of The Black Jacobins will inevitably restrict its circulation. Fortunately James has written a short pamphlet embodying the gist of his larger work on the San Dominican events. A History of Negro Revolt also deals with the struggles of the slaves in North America and Africa and gives a valuable account of recent Negro movements there and in the West Indies. This useful and inexpensive parcel of information ought to be in the hands of all revolutionary internationalists.


Last updated on: 4.2.2006