Scott McLemee: History is the Devil's Scripture

Roundup: Talking About History

[Scott McLemee is an essayist and critic. His reviews, essays, and interviews have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Nation, Newsday, Bookforum, The Common Review, and numerous other publications. In 2004, he received the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle.]

One hesitates to refer to the rational kernel in any statement coming from Pat Robertson, of course. But his recent venture into explaining the earthquake in Haiti does contain a small, heavily distorted, yet recognizable fragment of historical reality.

That kernel has passed through his system without giving him any nourishment, but I’ll try to pluck it out of all the batshit craziness.

C.L.R. James wrote The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (1938) after about ten years of research, having been inspired, it seems, by a condescending biography of Toussaint that irritated him so much that he decided he needed to do something better. About halfway through the process, he discovered Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution. I won’t go into all the consequences now (it is among the topics discussed here) except to note that reading Trotsky had a big effect on his own effort to write revolutionary history.

The first three chapters of Jacobins analyze the economy, social hierarchy, and governance of the island, situating the slave system in the context of global capitalist accumulation. This tracks pretty closely to how Trotsky begins. Then we come to chapter four, “The San Domingo Masses Begin,” with its distinctive twist on the question of how to characterize the class position of the slaves:

The slaves worked on the land, and, like revolutionary peasants everywhere, they aimed at the extermination of their oppressors. But working and living together in gangs of hundreds on the huge sugar-factories which covered the North Plain, they were closer to a modern proletariat than any group of workers in existence at the time, and the rising was, therefore, a thoroughly prepared and organised mass movement. By hard experience they had learnt that isolated efforts were doomed to failure, and in the early months of 1791 in and around Le Cap they were organising for revolution.

This is interesting as an example of what Trotsky had called combined and uneven development. But in the interest of topicality, let’s get instead to the bee buzzing in the fundamentalist bonnet:

Voodoo was the medium of the conspiracy. In spite of all prohibitions, the slaves travelled miles to sing and dance and practice the rites and talk; and now, since the revolution [in France], to hear the political news and make their plans. Boukman, a Papaloi or High Priest, a gigantic Negro, was the leader. He was the headman of a plantation and followed the political situation both among the whites and among the Mulattoes.
James had provided, in earlier chapters, an analysis of the gradations of Haitian society along the color line. This plays itself out in complex ways throughout the rest of the book. What matters at this point in the narrative, however, is that the people at the very bottom of the structure have both a medium to communicate amongst themselves and a leadership willing to seize the moment:
Carrying torches to light their way, the leaders of the revolt met in an open space in the thick forests of the Morne Rouge, a mountainside overlooking Le Cap. There Boukman gave the last instructions and, after Voodoo incantations and the sucking of the blood of a stuck pig, he stimulated his followers by a prayer spoken in creole which, like so much spoken on such occasions, has remained. “The god who created the sun which gives us light, who rouses the waves and rules the storm, though hidden in the clouds, he watches us. He sees all that the white man does. The god of the white man inspires him with crime, but our god calls upon us to do good works. Our god who is good to us orders us to revenge our wrongs. He will direct our arms and aid us. Throw away the symbol of the god of the whites who has so often caused us to weep, and listen to the voice of liberty, which speaks in the hearts of us all.” The symbol of the god of the whites was the cross which, as good Catholics, they wore around their necks.
Naturally this god—like any of the loas presumably also invoked before the uprising began—would not count as a “devil” in the eyes of the believers. But then you can’t exactly expect Rev. Pat to be that interested in the nuances of Voodoo theology.

After the uprising began, Boukmon was captured and executed—his head mounted in public with a placard explaining that he was the chief of the rebels. But it was too late. Leadership passed to Toussaint.

Rather than discuss the later phases of the revolution, let me just recommend that anyone who has not done so yet read the book. I’ll end with a passage assessing the initial phase of the revolt, in the aftermath of this torchlit meeting on the mountainside:

The slaves destroyed tirelessly. Like the peasants in the Jacqueries or the Luddite wreckers, they were seeking their salvation in the most obvious way, the destruction of what they knew was the cause of their sufferings; and if they destroyed much it was because they suffered much. They knew that as long as these plantations stood their lot would be to labour on them until they dropped. The only thing was the destroy them. From their masters they had known rape, torture, degradation, and, at the slightest provocation, death. They returned in kind. For two centuries the higher civilization had shown them that power was used for wreaking your will on those whom you controlled. Now that they held power, they did as they were taught…Yet in all the records of that time there is no single instance of such fiendish tortures as burying white men up to the neck and smearing the holes in their faces to attract insects, or blowing them up with gun-powder, or any of the thousand and one bestialities to which they had been subjected. Compared with what their masters had done to them in cold blood, what they did was negligable, and they were spurred on by the ferocity with which the whites in Le Cap treated all slave prisoners who fell into their hands.
Shortly after The Black Jacobins appeared, James wrote a sort of overview or summary essay that Paul LeBlanc and I reprinted in C.L.R. James and Revolutionary Marxism. It also available online, although without all the other material that made our book such a pleasure to His Satanic Majesty.

Read entire article at Crooked Timber (Blog)

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