Revolutions and Revisions: An Interview with Charles Forsdick and Christian Høgsbjerg - Part II

Another question on circulation. How was The Black Jacobins taken up in the Caribbean and Africa?

CH: This is a fascinating question, and one that surely requires more research  – I once came across a reference to “Toussaint Louverture clubs” in existence in colonial Trinidad in 1938, but my sense is that these were short-lived middle class literary societies and it seems unconnected to James or his work.  George Padmore worked to ensure The Black Jacobins was known among anti-colonial activists in colonial Africa and the Caribbean, writing a widely republished review praising the work and aimed to send a few copies to Pan-Africanist contacts in West Africa – perhaps the most notable reader of the work to emerge out of this milieu would have been Kwame Nkrumah.  Intriguingly there was a copy of the French edition in the library of Frantz Fanon. James himself testifies to the impact of the work in apartheid South Africa among students, while Thabo Mbeki once stated that after he read The Black Jacobins, he knew that apartheid would ultimately be defeated. Many radical intellectuals and writers of the 1960s and 1970s aside from Mbeki engaged with it deeply – whether one is talking about Walter Rodney, George Lamming, Stokely Carmichael, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o or the circle of young black Caribbean radicals in the C.L.R. James Study Circle in Montreal, Canada that David Austinhas written about. James’s 1967 revised play The Black Jacobins was produced and staged in Nigeria of course, and the circumstances of this have been discussed extensively by Rachel Douglas.

CF: Yes, this is a question that interested us greatly while we were preparing The Black Jacobins Reader– and we both concluded that considerably more research is required. We were grateful to Matthew Smith for his chapter on Haiti in British West Indian thought before The Black Jacobins was published. It is clear that afterits publication, James’s book has predominated. Christian mentions the presence of Les Jacobins noirsin Fanon’s library – and I’m particularly interested in this Francophone postcolonial engagement. Césaire clearly knew James’s work and cites it in passing in his Toussaint Louverture:La Révolution française et le problème colonial(just as James would cite the Cahier d’un retour au pays natalin the 1963 postface to The Black Jacobins). The two men met in Cuba at the Havana Cultural Congress of 1968 – Andrew Salkey memorably describes the encounter in his Havana Journaland James devotes a fragment to Césaire in his unpublished autobiography. Another dimension of this story is the reception of The Black Jacobinsin Haiti itself. We have tantalizing glimpses of James’s interactions with Haitian historians, notably Etienne Charlier, author of the classic Marxist history of the Revolution in Aperçu sur la formation historique de la nation haïtienne, and Jean Fouchard, for the English translation of whose Les Marrons de la Liberté (The Haitian Maroons: Liberty or Death) James wrote a preface in 1981, the year after Fouchard’s death. It is unclear whether James ever travelled to Haiti – it seems unlikely – but he definitely had plans for a visit in the 1950s when he also alluded to a possible Haitian translation of his work. I’m not one for counterfactual history, but it is striking to speculate on the impact that translation might have had had it appeared in Duvalier’s Haiti.

What is the theoretical, and perhaps methodological, importance of The Black Jacobins to debates concerning the history of capitalism and slavery?

CH: Stuart Hall once wrote that James in The Black Jacobins was the first to centre Atlantic slavery in world history – so in this sense the importance of James’s work to these debates is self-evident.  Certainly, James’s short discussion on the economic roots of British parliamentary abolitionism formed the essential outline of Eric Williams’s more famous and lengthy contribution in this field – as Williams himself acknowledged, though in my opinion James’s grasp of the modernity of colonial slavery and the slave ships and plantations thanks to his underlying theoretical grasp of the uneven and combined nature of capitalist development meant his analysis of the exact relationship between capitalism and slavery is more sophisticated than that of Williams in many respects. Personally I have also been struck by James’s pioneering class analysis of the enslaved themselves – part proto-proletariat, part proto-peasantry while also recognizing that in many ways they were also part proto-consumers, long before slavery scholars coined these terms.  More broadly, James was the first to stress the importance of the Haitian Revolution to the wider transition from feudalism to capitalism in terms of Marxist historiography, and so the work formed the central part of his wider lifelong intellectual contribution which was, as he saw it, to explain the relationship of black people to “Western Civilisation.”

CF: Yes, the genesis of The Black Jacobinsand Capitalism and Slavery (or at least the thesis on which it was based) are so closely intertwined that James once claimed he and Williams co-authored parts of each text. James was, however, one of the first to see the plantation as an early expression of the logic of capitalism, a testing ground for the nineteenth-century developments of the industrial revolution. Thanks to the work of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership project, we now have a much clearer evidence base to track how slavery and capitalism would be subsequently linked. But at a more fundamental level, James shows how the dehumanization of enslavement transformed the enslaved into capital. The first chapter of The Black Jacobinsremains one of the most searing statements of this historical reality, but the text also shows an interest in the economic underpinnings of the Revolution – in Louverture’s pragmatism (his re-imposition of the plantation can be seen as a form of state capitalism) but also in the alternatives of agrarian self-sufficiency and devolved ownership proposed by Louverture’s nephew Moïse. James’s growing interest in Moïse (and in Louverture’s decision to execute him) predominates in his later engagements with Haitian revolutionary historiography, as Rachel Douglas demonstrates in her analyses of the 1967 dramatic rendering of The Black Jacobins – and reflects his growing commitment to a history from below that moves away from over-privileging of the heroes, from what Maryse Condé dismissed as “conventional reactionary bric à brac.” There, for James, economic history meets Shakespearean tragedy as it is clear that the failure to grasp the implications of ignoring Moïse’s alternative model reveals Louverture’s fatal flaw.

You suggest that James was aware of the methodological and archival limitations of The Black Jacobins, especially concerning the focus on Louverture. Can you say more about this – about James’ own critiques, and about how other writers have extended or revised James biographical-historical method?

CH: James as a good historian was of course always aware that new sources would emerge in archives which would necessitate the revision of this or that specific aspect of his argument, but he also felt – rightly in my opinion – that the foundations of his argument would be in a sense “imperishable.” I would therefore not want to draw the kind of strict demarcation between the 1938 version and the 1963 revised version of the text that for example David Scott has done in his fascinating work, Conscripts of Modernity.  My sense is that within The Black Jacobinsthere is of course the romantic focus on anticolonial revolt which gives it is epic quality as a work of historical literature – but Scott in Conscripts of Modernityis mistaken to place James’s focus on tragedy as only coming through in the later 1963 edition, with the additional paragraphs in the closing chapter.   When James wrote his play Toussaint Louverturein 1934, he portrayed Toussaint as a tragic hero of colonial enlightenment, and there is an important sense in which James discusses the Haitian Revolution as a bourgeois revolution, though this line of argument is muted somewhat – no doubt James wanted to inspire those fighting for colonial liberation, not depress them.  Some of James’s later critiques of The Black Jacobinsin some senses are about his own slight political move away from the classical Marxist framework which made it such an outstanding work of “total history,” towards the more popular “history from below” approaches which for example inspired James’s student Carolyn Fick in her own important work, The Making of Haiti: The Saint-Domingue Revolution from below.  Yet though James once suggested that he might rewrite The Black Jacobinsas The Black Sans culottesif he was going to start all over again, the fact he did not ever re-write or re-title later editions of the work suggests to me he always retained at least some of his old Leninist instincts about the importance of revolutionary leadership for successful revolutionary struggles into his old age.

CF: Your question is central to the progressive rewriting in which James engaged. I agree with Christian that that process was both organic and dialogic, and does not include any of the sudden volte-faces that some accounts of this engagement sometimes imply. The Black Jacobinsis rooted in the intensive archival work that James conducted in Paris, often between cricket seasons when his work as a journalist was in abeyance. But he continued to rethink these sources and to reassess his interpretation of them. Already in the 1950s, in his correspondence with Etienne Charlier, the possibility of a history of the Revolution “from below” was clear, and this became particularly apparent in the later 1960s when James revisited his dramatic version of The Black Jacobins. He articulated these shifts in the series of 1971 lectures at the Institute of the Black World in Atlanta, in particular in the one entitled “How I would rewrite The Black Jacobins,” in which he states that Louverture might ultimately be granted little more than a walk-on part in a new version of the book. James was inspired here by the new historiography of the French Revolution – in particular the work of Lefevre and Soboul, the second of whom presented the sans-culottes as a social class, a proto-proletariat who played a key role– and stated that he would seek to focus more on the “2,000 leaders to be taken away” about whom Leclerc warned Napoleon following the arrest of Louverture. The IBW lectures were published for the first time in Small Axein 2000, and in an excellent afterword, Anthony Bogues suggests that they allow us to “think with and then beyond James” – I take this as meaning that the lectures allow us not only to understand the organic development of James’s thought, but also to locate The Black Jacobinsin relation to a range of other interpreters of the Haitian Revolution – Carolyn Fick, John Thornton, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Laurent Dubois, Matthew Smith, Johnhenry Gonzalez– who are in dialogue with James, who complement and on occasion challenge his work.

Can you say something about the editorial process behind The Black Jacobins Reader? What are the origins of the project and what guided your decisions about how to frame it, what to include and not include?

CH: The Black Jacobins Readeremerged out of a one day London Socialist Historians Group conference I co-organised back in 2008, to mark the 70thanniversary of the work – the fact the book only appeared in late 2017, just before the 80thanniversary, tells you something about the lengthy gestation period and editorial process involved in putting this together.  I think as editors we wanted a mix of classic original material relating to the book that had never been published in English before (the gem I think here being the transcript of James’s 1970 radio interview about the work with Studs Terkel, which we discovered relatively late on), a range of new scholarship relating to the book, some of which we had from the conference, some of which we solicitated afterwards, and then some more personal contributions by leading activists and scholars of the Haitian Revolution testifying to the works importance and impact.   Selma James played a very helpful role here, soliciting the contributions from the two imprisoned Black Panthers, Mumia Abu-Jamal and Russell Maroon Shoatz on our behalf.  We were constrained by length – it is some 400 pages – from including much more, though we remain thankful to the editors of Duke for giving us the space and length we needed to include everything we did.

CF: Christian knew of my work on the re-figurings of Toussaint Louverture and I was pleased when he invited me to collaborate on bringing together the Reader. The 2008 London conference was a lively, highly significant event, bringing together – as is customarily the case with workshops and conferences devoted to James – academics and activists. The reader captures some of its commitment to bridging the artificiality of that divide. We were keen to fill a gap in the existing literature by producing a volume entirely devoted to The Black Jacobins– previous volumes, such as C.L.R. James:  His Intellectual Legacies edited by Selwyn Cudjoe and William Cain,had dedicated sections to the book, but we felt that more sustained attention was required. Christian has described the balance we sought between first-hand accounts of the influence of James’s work and more conventional academic studies; to these we added our detailed introduction, on the genesis and afterlives of The Black Jacobins, and various appendices (a section we might have expanded had we had more flexibility). Our aim was to bring together contributions into a book that could be used equally by students, scholars and activists. We wanted to show that The Black Jacobinsis a living document, one whose meanings continue to evolve. And we were profoundly aware of the company we were keeping in the C.L.R. James Archives series published by Duke University Press, a collection dedicated to presenting to a contemporary audience, in its breadth and diversity, the work of one of the great intellectual figures of the twentieth-century.

You dedicate Toussaint Louverture to Robert A. Hill and Janet Alder and Hill provides an introduction to The Black Jacobins Reader.What role has Hill played in the development of both projects? And Alder?

CH: Robert A. Hill has been a very important mentor to me personally in terms of C.L.R. James scholarship, and this together with his editorial expertise and outstanding record of scholarship on the African diaspora and Pan-Africanism in particular were absolutely invaluable when it came to all the editorial work I have done with the Duke University Press C.L.R. James Archives series, from theToussaint Louvertureplay through to World Revolution. ForThe Black Jacobins Reader, for example, originally Charles and myself had envisaged including as many as possible original reviews the 1938 edition received in full – it was Robert A. Hill who understood this would make the book too big in size – I think the phrase he used was “over-egging the cake” or something – and so we then decided to cut this section out and just include extracts from some of the reviews in our introduction – a decision that we came to see made very good sense.    It was an honour for us to carry his foreword to The Black Jacobins Readergiven his profound understanding of the work – and the fact he gave us the honour of co-editing such a work as The Black Jacobins Readermade it only right that we acknowledged him when we came to write Toussaint Louverture: A Black Jacobin in the Age of Revolutions. 

Janet Alder’s brother Christopher – a black former paratrooper – was killed while in police custody in Hull in 1998 – the same year I started University as an undergraduate and so I have seen Janettirelessly and courageously campaign for justice for her brother for over twenty years in the face of enormous pressures.  Her indefatigability here as a campaigner for “Black Lives Matter” long before the hashtag was born for me stands as reminiscent of that shown by the Haitian revolutionaries, and so in that sense I felt the dedication to her was most appropriate.  The fact that much of her campaigning has taken place in the city to which William Wilberforce was once the MP only further highlights some of the continuities between the racism born of colonial slavery and the racism which continues to kill in the present day.

CF: I echo Christian’s gratitude to Robert A. Hill, who provided patient, wise counsel throughout our preparation of the Readerand was a great supporter of our collaborative work. As literary executor of the C.L.R. James estate and eyewitness of much of the context to The Black Jacobinsthat interested us, he never let his personal investment in the project impede our own ambitions for the volume, and it seemed only natural that we would subsequently dedicate the Louverture biography to him. The parallel dedication to Janet Alder was a mark of our respect for her indefatigable commitment to uncovering the truth about her brother’s unlawful killing, despite the harassment to which she has been subject herself. Colonial slavery, for whose abolition Louverture fought, has clear contemporary afterlives, and we were keen to link historical and contemporary struggles in this way.

You invoke the Kreyòl saying tou moun se moun (“everyone is a human being”) in your discussion of the politics of race and citizenship in Haiti after 1804. What does this expression mean in the context of 1804 and what are the lessons that that phrase – and Haiti, in the immediate aftermath of independence – offer us now? Importantly, you also appear to suggest a sort of historical redemption of Jean-Jacques Dessalines.

CF:Tout moun se moun – “every person is a human being” – was a refrain common in Haiti from the moment of independence. A radically egalitarian principle suggesting that all lives matter and that everyone has the right to dignity, it was more recently adopted as the title of Aristide’s 1992 autobiography, written just before he was ousted from power for the first time the previous year. The idea of universal emancipation fed into the aspirations underpinning Haitian sovereignty and were enshrined in Dessalines’s 1804 constitution. In Haiti, Louverture is known as the “Precursor,” Dessalines as the “Liberator” – and it is Dessalines who was tasked with consolidating the gains of the Revolution and defending them against multiple threats. Post-independence, Haiti has struggled to defend this principle, often in the face of external interventions such as the US occupation of 1915-34 or the damaging impact of the UN stabilization mission (known as MINUSTAH) following Aristide’s second ousting, with the introduction of cholera and accusations of other human rights abuses. At the same time, the totalitarian, despotic excesses of the Duvalier regime reveal how the principle has been equally challenged by internal forces. The often-repeated observation that Haiti is the “poorest country in the Western hemisphere” perpetuates a sense of dependency. What we regularly ignore is what Haiti can teach the rest of the world, not least how we are dependent on it for the vision of a universal emancipation that the American and French Revolutions could not even imagine, of a radical equality that threatened the logic of slavery and colonialism as much as it now threatens that of neo-liberal capitalism.

One reservation I’ve always had in working on Toussaint Louverture is that focus on his life, achievements and afterlives is often to the detriment of the attention that Dessalines himself merits. Louverture is somehow acceptable and translatable in ways that his former lieutenant (and, as Gabriel Debien and subsequently Jacques de Cauna and Philippe Girard have suggested, someone who had been enslaved by Louverture’s son-in-law) still is not. In that sense, we may create analogies between the two Haitian Revolutionaries and other pairs of radicals, notably MLK and Malcolm X. I have often stated in my writing and teaching that there are over 200 biopics of Napoleon and none of Toussaint Louverture. We need to remember, however, that there are dozens of biographies of Louverture but as far as I’m aware none of Dessalines in English (and very few in French, with most of these published in Haiti, by authors including Timoléon C. Brutus and Gérard M. Laurent, meaning they have limited distribution). This despite the fact that in Haiti it is Dessalines who is a lwain the vodou pantheon, that the national anthem is known as the Dessalinienne… Dubroca produced a scurrilous biography of Dessalines in 1804, which was translated into English, German and Spanish (his equally defamatory life of Louverture was also popular at the time). Subsequent representations – even by African American authors – have tended to perpetuate the stereotype of Dessalines as a fierce and brutal figure. Julia Gaffield, who edited an excellent collection of essays on Dessalines’ 1804 constitution (a copy of which she uncovered while doing doctoral research in the National Archives in Kew) is currently working on a manuscript entitled Jean-Jacques Dessalines: Freedom or Death, due to appear with Yale University Press, and has also made available online as the “Dessalines Reader,”a valuable collection of archival materials relating to her subject. There is a pressing need also for a political biography of Dessalines, one that avoids the excesses of past hagiography or demonization, and can be seen as part of wider project of reparative history of race and resistance.

Article originally published by The Public Archive in 03/05/2020

by Christian Hogsbjerg, Charles Forsdick and The Public Archive
Cara a cara | 18 November 2020 | activists, anti-colonial, anti-racism, historicism, Toussaint Louverture