CLR James on how to rewrite the Black Jacobins

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CLR JAMES jacket

My thanks to Ravi Malhotra for sending me a copy the journal Small Axe (no. 8, 2000), containing three talks James gave on The Black Jacobins. Delivered in 1971 to the Institute of the Black World in Atlanta, the first was a biographical retrospective on the book, and the second a comparison with WEB Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction in America, which had covered some of the same themes, and was published just a couple of years earlier, albeit of course DuBois’ immediate subject was the rise and defeat of a post-revolutionary order 80 years later within the Southern States of the US after the Civil War.

The talk which interested me the most was the third, “How I Would Re-Write The Black Jacobins”. Now, every writer, the further they get from publishing a book, will have changes to make to it. If you are, like James, writing history, then others will inevitably approach the same documents and find new sources to better contextualise them. If you are writing politics, as you age and mellow, or find new reasons to be angry, inevitably you will want to reconsider earlier formulations.

Retrospective correction need not be an improvement. Engels’ 1895 introduction to Marx’s Class Struggles in France before partially disavowed their generation’s focus on street-fighting in favour of reform through the ballot box, comparing the inevitable rise of the SPD to that of Christianity centuries before. Generations of Marxists since 1917 have disagreed with him.

But James in his seventies, unusually for an older writer looking back, was thinking through ways in which he could rewrite The Black Jacobins to the left. He had described slavery through the eyes of sympathetic, affluent observers. “Not any long, no, I would want to say what we had to say about how we were treated, and I know that information exists.” In France, he found a black aristocrat and colonist Carteau warning that the mood had turned decisively against the aristocracy of the skin, “I would not write that today”, “I would find – and I know they are there if you look hard enough – the actual statements where the rank and file in France and the ordinary people are saying what they think about slavery.”

The “we” in these passages (“how we were treated”) are the black slaves of St Dominique, and the “we” is equally the black audience of CLR James speaking in Atlanta in 1971.

Immediately afterwards, he qualified these thoughts, saying that he would also say more about the revolutionary process in France. James distanced himself from a section of The Black Jacobins, during which he had described how during the Days of 31 May and 2 June 1793, the Girondins had been driven out of the Convention. With some care, he explained, this was quite inadequate. He showed, from a perspective of fascination with the involvement of the masses in the making of a democratic revolution, that the impetus for the change came not from the top but from hundreds of thousands of Parisians had compelled the leaders of the revolution to take action, and reconstitute the Convention, enabling the abolition of slavery which was to follow the year after.

The rank-and-file was never constituted in James’ mind only out of those oppressed on grounds of race, but comprised equally the poor and the workers of all colours. In thinking of the working class as a unified force comprising of every race; he never forgot to think of the particular oppression of those who suffered racism.

James described the intense debates which took place within the French revolution, and he insisted that at their centre was not a debate between two types of revolutionary leader, but the debate “in the stores and the little workshops and the dark streets of old Paris”. Next he showed how the revolutionary leaders of San Domingo had not been the first to come to the fore in demanding abolition, but the initiative had been taken (in the words of one French soldier Pamphile de Lacroix) by “obscure creatures for the greater part personal enemies of the black generals”.

“They were obscure in Watts, they were obscure in Detroit”, James interjected. If he had to write the book now, he continued, most of his research from the very beginning would have been directed to finding who these “creatures”, the local advocates of the San Domingo uprising, its cadre, had been.

In 1971 James was setting out a writer’s project for a world in which the number of revolutions was increasing, as was their social content, whereas our own times are more equivocal. And yet there is something heartening – and contemporary – about a way of writing in which the focus is constantly, urgently, and ever more deeply, on the process of revolution itself.

For those who are interested in more about James, my book CLR James; Cricket’s Philosopher King, has was re-published this month as an e-book by HopeRoad

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