The mysterious ways of The Black Jacobins

C.L.R. James' "The Black Jacobins" had an impact far beyond the Caribbean. In places like Apartheid South Africa.

Image from the book cover art. Édouard Duval-Carrié, Le Général Toussaint enfumé, 2001.

The Trinidadian historian and journalist C.L.R. James would often talk of the impact that The Black Jacobins had across the world, in places such as Haiti and South Africa. The above epigraph is adapted from James’s account, in the 1980 foreword of The Black Jacobins, of “one of the most remarkable experiences” he had with the book, especially in apartheid South Africa. There, as the historian and auto worker Marty Glaberman pointed out, the book became an “underground textbook,” which was clandestinely copied and distributed in installments to the next readers.

In an interview for my book, ‘Making The Black Jacobins: C. L. R. James and the Drama of History’ (Duke University Press), Grant Farred, now literary scholar at Cornell University, explained how he first came across this history:

On an August Friday in 1979 when I was in high school, I was asked to come to the vice principal’s office. Richard Owen Dudley [ . . . ] gave me one of those mimeographed chapters [ . . . ] and he said to me, “Read this, and come to me and come on Monday morning and tell me what this is about.”

This is precisely the same type of serious study of history that James promoted throughout his life.

Dudley was one of the leaders of the Non-European Unity Movement (NEUM), for which James was an important figure. As Corinne Sandwith has noted (in personal correspondence), “Many of the founder members of the NEUM had some sort of affiliation with Trotskyist ideas so anyone who articulated an anti-Stalinist view from the Left was particularly interesting to them.” Sandwith has traced some important readings of James in early apartheid South Africa by the likes of Dudley and Marxist critic Dora Taylor.

Taylor reviewed The Black Jacobins in the popular Cape Town publication Trek in 1941. Her review offers a window into James’s history from the vantage point of apartheid South Africa. She signals that James’s main achievement:

…lies in his analysis of the political and economic forces of the age providing the background of that revolt, the close relationship between the progress of the French Revolution and the fate of the slaves in San Domingo, and the influence of French and British colonial rivalry during twelve years of the struggle for freedom.

Taylor and the Unity Movement shared a preoccupation with radical cultural projects involving the reading and discussion of literature. The South African NEUM activists’ development of a radical educational program chimes with the independent education study circles associated with James and his own political organizations in places like Detroit, Montreal, and London.

C.L.R. James and The Black Jacobins were interpolated in these ways into local South African anti-apartheid struggles, as they offered alternative views with which to counter and “write back” to the “single commanding [discursive] narrative” of imperialism-colonialism. James and The Black Jacobins are appropriated and rewritten in their turn to critique and reconfigure the contemporary South African political scene.

The Black Jacobins has enjoyed a resurgence throughout South Africa in recent years. A 2017 lecture series by David Austin titled C. L. R. James—Life and Lasting Legacy, marked 80 years of The Black Jacobins in South Africa.

Next year will mark 10 years since the devastating Haitian earthquake of 2010. Selma James has written of how James’s book was called on again after the earthquake, with many people turning to The Black Jacobins because they wanted to know who the Haitians were. She writes of how this history “reignited Haiti and its revolutionary past” for new readers. As the first democratically elected Haitian president, Aristide, told Selma James on his return to Haiti in 2011, The Black Jacobins “had put Haiti on the map” because “people didn’t know where it was before.” She also revealed that former South African president Thabo Mbeki had said he knew that the anti-apartheid forces would win when he read the history.

From the perspective of successive pasts and presents, and for the futures in those pasts and presents, James was always translating Haiti and its revolution for Anglophones and speakers of other languages from the 1930s onward, inspiring new generations of today’s black and Haitian Jacobins, both inside and outside Haiti.

Further Reading