The Black Jacobins: a Class Analysis of Revolution

Benjamin Graves '98, Brown University

The Black Jacobins, an historical account of the San Domingo Revolution of 1791-1803 and its interrelation with the French Revolution in 1789, is above all a narrative of liberation that documents the revolutionary potential of proletarian masses. Although James is careful to point out the racial heterogeneity of the San Domingo population--distinguishing, for example, between mulattoes, small whites, big whites, and maritime bourgeoisie--he places greater emphasis on the antagonisms of class that provided the socio-economic impetus for revolution:

In the following passage, James adopts the materialist (Marxist) position that questions of class precede and overshadow questions of race, gender, or nation:

The race question is subsidiary to the class question in politics, and to think of imperialism in terms of race is disastrous. But to neglect the racial factor as merely incidental is an error only less grave than to make it fundamental. (283)

James' central argument, in other words, is that the predicament of colonial oppression is not so much a situation of racial oppression but of class antagonism or opposition--even among classes within the colonized body politic. San Domingo--a crucial colony because of its sugar industry--became the site of class conflict in one sense because the maritime bourgeois (a class, not race distinction) saw the benefits of a complicity with the French bourgeoisie, whereas the masses obviously did not. Other critics, such as Paul Gilroy, have suggested quite the opposite--that race is in fact a fundamental factor of colonial oppression. Notice also that James somewhat qualifies the statement above by granting race a marginal relevance in the workings of empire: "to neglect the racial factor as merely incidental is an error only less grave than to make it fundamental." What are some possible limitations of James' emphasis on class? Does he naively assume allegiences across race within the proletariat? Is his mention of race merely gestural, tokenistic, perfunctory?

Compare also James' thoughts on revolutionary leadership to those of Frantz Fanon. James perhaps replaces Fanon's oversimplified opposition of "colonizer" and "colonized" with the more nuanced relationship between leader and led. If If James concedes the importance of British education to colonized subjects (not least himself), then in The Black Jacobins he portrays Toussaint Louverture's complicated dependence upon colonial erudition--a dependence, according to James, that led to Louverture's eventual betrayal of the San Domingo proletariat towards the revolution's end. Much in the same way that Frantz Fanon argues in The Wretched of the Earth that colonial oppression is the fault of an overly opportunist colonized bourgeoisie (middle class), James argues that Louverture fell pray to the lures of bourgeois intellectualism once the lion's share of insurgence was under way. In the passage below, James describes the gaps between leader and led (between intellectualism and masses) that perhaps led to Toussaint's demise:

Between Toussaint and his people there was no fundamental difference of outlook or of aim. Knowing the race question for the political and social question that it was, he tried to deal with it in a purely political and social way. It was a grave error. Lenin in his thesis to the Second Congress of the Communist International warned the white revolutionaries--a warning they badly need--that such has been the effect of the policy of imperialism on the relationship between advanced and backward peoples that European Communists will have to make wide concessions to natives of colonial countries in order to overcome the justified prejudice which these feel toward all classes in the oppressing countries. toussaint, as his power grew, forgot that. He ignored the black labourers, bewildered them at the very moment that he needed them most, and to bewilder the masses is to strike the deadliest of blows at the revolution. (239-240).

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