How C.L.R. James wrote the definitive history of the Haitian Revolution

Viviane Magno (Jacobin Magazine) interviews Rachel Douglas, author of Making the Black Jacobins: C.L.R. James and the Drama of History (Duke University Press, 2019). Magno reminds us: “The socialist historian C. L. R. James was born 120 years ago today [4 January]. His landmark text, The Black Jacobins, is a majestic account of the Haitian Revolution and is still the authoritative history of a heroic struggle for freedom and dignity.” [Read the full interview at Jacobin Magazine.]

In a 1980 interview, C. L. R. James stated that he wanted to be remembered above all for his serious contributions to Marxism. In Making the Black Jacobins: C. L. R. James and the Drama of HistoryRachel Douglas explores the many facets of the Trinidadian author and offers a fresh interpretation of his unique brand of Marxism.

Douglas’s book traces the development of James’s thought over more than thirty years, from his intellectual activities as a Pan-Africanist in London and Paris in the 1930s to his political militancy as one of the founders in the 1940s of the Johnson–Forest Tendency (born from a split with the American Trotskyist organization, the Workers Party). Douglas also revisits James’s engagement with the Black Power and Civil Rights movements of the 1960s and gives special consideration to his work as a playwright. James’s constantly transforming thought is fruitfully explored through Douglas’s masterly use of archival sources — his main works, manuscripts, notes, as well as interviews and secondary sources are all woven into the author’s rich intellectual portrait.

At the center of Douglas’s book is James’s most renowned work, The Black Jacobins. As the author shows, the evolution of James’s political thought and militancy is deeply bound up with a six-decade-long process of writing and rewriting that classic work of Marxist historical analysis. In tracing the book’s evolution, Douglas also highlights the connections between James’s texts and the emancipatory history of the West Indies and Africa.

To reveal the making of The Black Jacobins, Douglas offers a unique reading that connects James’s Haitian Revolution–inspired plays (1934 and 1967) and successive editions of The Black Jacobins (1938 and 1963). At every point, Douglas carefully reconstructs the dialogue taking place between James’s texts and their surrounding political and social context.

The central argument advanced by Douglas is that Black Jacobins should be understood as a palimpsest — a text that, in the words of the author, consists of “layered repositories of embedded vestiges, meaning that earlier inscriptions remain and are never erased, because ‘these narrative inscriptions become part of the whole.’” In the case of James, this meant that the story of the Haitian Revolution was rewritten through multiple mediums: as articles, histories, and, perhaps most strikingly, through plays. As Douglas argues, by retelling the history of the Haitian Revolution through theatrical representation, James was able to dramatize political conflicts and bring them into sharper focus.

In a masterful stroke, Douglas applies the very historical method pioneered by James to the study of the Trinidadian himself. As the author explains, that approach offered a unique criticism of imperialist historiography, reinvigorated Marxist categories of analysis, and provided a compelling interpretation of twentieth-century anti-colonial struggles.

To commemorate the 120th anniversary of James’s birth, Viviane Magno spoke with the author of Making the Black Jacobins to recall the legacy of C. L. R. James — not just the author of The Black Jacobins, but a giant of twentieth-century Marxism.

VM: Let me begin by saying how much I loved Making the Black Jacobins. In some way, your book helps James’s readers to better understand certain questions that he left open-ended or that seemed a bit enigmatic.

For example, in the preface to the 1938 edition, when James writes, “Yet Toussaint did not make the revolution. It was the revolution that made Toussaint. And even that is not the whole truth.” Not the whole truth?

RD: This sentence you quote is a typical James sentence. His sentences often double back on themselves like this. Another example is “Great men make history, but only such history as it is possible for them to make.” Here James echoes the introduction to Karl Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte about individuals making history, but only in certain circumstances. What James does is take the correlation of the individual and the circumstances to his biographical model. Yet James shows that we cannot understand history through the personality of one great man, despite the vivid pen portraits he draws of Toussaint Louverture. The twists in James’s preface signal that The Black Jacobins will mainly be a portrait of the revolution through Louverture’s personality, but that the evolving circumstances are also crucial to historical developments outlined by James.

I think you are right to point out that open-endedness is important. He keeps the book of his Haitian Revolution writings open, like the always-open book that is his tombstone in Tunapuna. In Notes on Dialectics, James commented that “a closed book” is “a vile phrase.” James’s rewriting repeatedly acts against fixed, static, and finite forms — qualities he associated with negative Stalinist categories and falsification. Instead, James’s rewriting turns back upon itself like a circle, which has neither beginning nor end. A pattern emerges: James’s writing on the Haitian Revolution can be thought of — following his commentary in Notes on Dialectics — as continually enlarging circles. [. . .]

VM: Can you talk a little bit about your own making-of process for Making the Black Jacobins? What drew you to the particular method you chose? What theoretical influences were you drawing on?

RD: It all started in Trinidad in 2007 when I was at a seminar, “Haiti Now! Art, Film, Literature,” organized by Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw and Martin Munro. While I was at the University of the West Indies – St. Augustine campus, I made a couple of visits to the West Indiana and Special Collections archives at the Alma Jordan library there. I came across a typescript of James’s first Toussaint Louverture 1936 play, which had been annotated. What caught my attention was that a new character had been added in James’s shaky handwriting. This character was Moïse, Toussaint Louverture’s adopted nephew.

From the program of the 1936 London production and other scripts of that play, we know that Moïse did not feature as a character in James’s first play. In the handwritten changes, Moïse went from being completely absent to being Louverture’s main interlocutor. This major change caught my attention, and I wanted to find out why James had changed some of the main characters. I also wanted to find out more about the history of The Black Jacobins. It’s a very famous book and is still considered the classic history of the Haitian Revolution to this day, which is quite a feat considering that it is over eighty years old! I wanted to get to know it better and in particular to find out more about the two plays which bookend the better-known history. It was fascinating to find out more about Paul Robeson’s role and contributions to the first play, which was only performed twice in London in 1936.

What I found was that James’s writings on the Haitian Revolution are in a state of constant motion and change, and this influenced my own process in making the book. Rewriting for James is a dialectical method. James’s own comments about Marx’s writing of Capital can be adapted to James’s Haitian Revolution–related writing. We see how James wrote a draft, then reorganized it completely, and then reorganized that. I tried to follow the process of The Black Jacobins’ own development and its essential dialectical movement as reflected in the form. Rewriting links James’s theory and practice. [. . .]

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