C.L.R. James: The Artist as Revolutionary
For several years I have been introducing students and friends to C.L.R. James’s book, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. Originally published in 1938, it is a study of the great Haitian slave insurrection that began in 1791 and was directly influenced by the ideas and actions of the French Revolution of 1789. Readers who do not know of the book react with excitement and admiration, and there is for me the special pleasure of watching people make a major discovery, as I made the same discovery some time before. For in this brilliantly written and stirring masterpiece of historical writing—surely among the great books of 20th-century scholarship—one also encounters a genuinely heroic as well as tragic story. Toussaint is portrayed as the other majestic figure produced by the French Revolution (Napoleon is the first), an illiterate slave whose remarkable intellect and capacities for leadership won freedom for his downtrodden people, but whose failure either to take that people into his confidence or realistically to assess the realities of French imperialism brought about his defeat.
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