Black Jacobinism, Black Bolshevism, and the British Stage

July 2014

I would like to begin by thanking Raphael Dalleo, Jeremy Glick, and Laura Harris for taking time to pen their generous and insightful discussions of C. L. R. James’s Toussaint Louverture, all fine essays from which I have learnt much, and to sx salon for organizing this discussion.My original introduction to the play, as Scott McLemee notes, focuses on the play “as a document—an artifact of historical, political, or biographical significance”—but says little about it “as a work of art,” and so three interventions by scholars more literary minded than myself are especially welcome in opening a broader discussion about some of the artistic dimensions and elements of the play.2

“Drama,” Anna Grimshaw once noted, “was a form for which James had a particular feel. His lifelong interest in Shakespeare was based on the dramatic quality of the work; and James recognised that theatre provided the arena in which to explore ‘political’ ideas as refracted through human character.”3 James’s concern with dramatic character, and with his imagining Toussaint Louverture in particular as what I have called “a tragic hero of colonial enlightenment” (13) torn between the ideals of the French Revolution and the realities of French colonial Saint-Domingue, remain for me of central importance to understanding the play. As Raphael Dalleo notes, James’s portrayal of Toussaint as a tragic hero in his 1934 play certainly complicates if not “calls into question the powerful argument [David] Scott makes in Conscripts of Modernity for reading a shift in James’s thought away from the utopian faith in romantic overcoming toward a more tragic, postcolonial skepticism about revolution as a political horizon.”4

We might recall that such a portrayal of Toussaint as a tragic hero is also essentially how James portrayed Toussaint in The Black Jacobins in 1938, although both play and history subsumed this individual tragedy within an overall narrative that celebrated and vindicated the success and epic achievement of the Haitian Revolution. Indeed, in 1998—before the publication of both Scott’s Conscripts of Modernity and James’s Toussaint Louverture—the late, great Stuart Hall had already explained how in The Black Jacobins “James imagined Toussaint as a Shakespearean figure with the tragic form built in. This derived, for James, from the historical situation itself, limiting the possibilities for Toussaint’s understanding of the political moment. . . . Yet to imagine this history, James himself had classical Greek tragedy and Shakespeare at the very forefront of his mind at every turn.”5 This is not to say that Scott is not still correct to draw attention to thinking about how and why James chooses to stress the tragic aspect of Toussaint to an even greater degree in 1963, in his revised edition, even if Scott perhaps draws too great a distinction in James’s thinking from 1938 to 1963.

Indeed, Scott’s Conscripts of Modernity remains an impressive and immensely valuable contribution to understanding The Black Jacobins as a work of historical literature. For example, Scott has shown how James’s portrayal of Toussaint as a heroic figure owed something to Thomas Carlyle, in particular his 1841 lectures “Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History.” Scott notes that while “clearly James would not have shared Carlyle’s infamously racist estimate of the worth of blacks or his ridiculing contempt for democracy,” James’s Toussaint “is very much infused with a Carlylean idea of the heroic.”6 In Chartism (1839), Carlyle had denigrated Toussaint and people of African descent in Africa and the Caribbean in his customary manner, declaring that “society, it is understood, does not in any age prevent a man from being what he can be. A sooty African can become a Toussaint L’Ouverture, a murderous Three-fingered Jack, let the yellow West Indies say to it what they will.”7 In making Toussaint himself a Carlylean “Great Man,” one of Carlyle’s heroic world-historical individuals, James in Toussaint Louverture was not only vindicating people of African descent in general and the struggle of West Indians against colonialism in particular but also wickedly and brilliantly subverting the racist assumptions of Victorian colonial discourse.

James’s partial construction of Toussaint as a Carlylean “Great Man” incidentally raises a question alluded to in Jeremy Glick’s essay concerning “representative revolutionary masculinity,”8 and scholars in the past have written much about how James’s Toussaint is gendered and constructed as a black masculine hero.9 It might be noted however that James’s Toussaint Louverture did include several important female characters, even if these were perhaps not fully developed by James until he rewrote his play on the Haitian Revolution in the 1960s amid the rise of the women’s liberation movement. In 1944, ten years after writing Toussaint Louverture, James was, in his own words, “toying with the idea of writing a play . . . for Ethel Waters, that superb natural and mature actress,” a play about the black American abolitionist Harriet Tubman (1822–1913).10 “The play will represent a conflict between slaves and slave-owners, an exemplification of the age-old conflict between the oppressed and oppressors,” James wrote at the time.11 “It is a political play . . . but the political ideas must be expressed through living people with all their passions, loves, hates, jealousies, etc.”12

James’s idea for a play about Harriet Tubman came to my mind when reading Laura Harris’s superb discussion of the “openings” for the performance of “creative, insurgent sociality” in Toussaint Louverture. Harris is very convincing in her identification of “the ‘self-defense’ of a sociality that is already in effect” within the play, though my sense is that James is also keen to emphasize how the feeling of confidence in their own power among the enslaved masses grew amidst the military victories of Toussaint’s rebel slave army. Even while stressing what Harris calls “the slaves’ revolutionary self-organization” and “the insurgency of black social life,” James also understood that there was a clash of ideas involved in any social movement or revolutionary struggle, and the question of whether the new ideas would triumph over the old was ultimately a question of revolutionary leadership, both individual and collective.13 Hence my argument in my introduction to the play stressing how James envisioned the crowd functioning as a kind of Greek chorus, commenting both positively and negatively on the ideas put forward by various leading figures of the slave revolution during the struggle.

James’s stress on leadership also comes through in his planned play on Harriet Tubman during the American Civil War. “The great political conflict of the time, among the Abolitionists, the basis of the play,” he wrote, “is whether abolition can be won by peaceful means or revolution. Harriet Tubman and John Brown said ‘It will be war.’ But Garrison and others . . . thought otherwise, though very bold and resolute in their agitation, etc.”14 One can only speculate about the kind of play James might have ultimately written about the American Civil War if he had eventually combined what Harris calls his search for a new form of authorship in his Notes on American Civilization with his longstanding historical researches into the struggle against slavery by the enslaved themselves in America.15 Here perhaps James’s later cowritten play The Black Jacobins, with its new, greater stress on the self-activity and experience of the enslaved during the Haitian Revolution, offers some glimpses into his thinking in this respect.

The publication of Toussaint Louverture—perhaps the last major piece of James’s corpus to be published—clearly allows us to more fully map out the topography of James’s work and, as Dalleo notes, creates “a fuller picture of the shifts in his thinking.”16 Clearly one major shift in James’s thinking during the years 1932–34, when he was writing Toussaint Louverture, was his turn toward Marxism, which analytically not only made sense of contemporary European politics but reinforced intellectually his previous thinking about philosophies of world history and the creativity and power of the West Indian working class movement.17 “The history of a revolution,” Leon Trotsky had famously written in his classic History of the Russian Revolution, “is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.”18 James clearly attempted to demonstrate this point in Toussaint Louverture, and his success is testified to in Harris’s essay.

Dalleo has suggested that James was “writing Toussaint Louverture with occupied Haiti in mind,” and in raising this fascinating possibility rightly notes that I perhaps should have discussed this at greater length in my introduction. The brutal US occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934 was a critical factor, as Mary Renda has shown, to why the inter-war period was to see such an outpouring of representations of the Haitian Revolution, particularly in the United States and among artists associated with the Harlem Renaissance.19 For example, Langston Hughes in the late 1920s began to write a “singing play” called Emperor of Haiti about Dessalines with Paul Robeson in mind. Then he visited occupied Haiti himself in 1931, and in 1935 he refashioned his play as Drums of Haiti and in 1936 as Troubled Island. Hughes’s play—later revised yet again, as Emperor of Haiti—met with some success when it was performed in late 1936 and might make for a fascinating comparison with James’s Toussaint Louverture, given that it was doubtless written with occupied Haiti in mind.20 Since writing my introduction, I have done further research on one of the minor black actors who starred in the 1936 production of Toussaint Louverture, Rufus E. Fennell (1887–1974), who played Macoya. Fennell, who was probably a black American, visited Haiti in the early twentieth century, and then at some point later (possibly in the late 1930s) wrote an unpublished screenplay, intended as a vehicle for Paul Robeson, titled The Black Prophet, set in early-twentieth-century Haiti and warning of US neocolonialism.21

No doubt that when James, for example, wrote lines for the character of the American consul Tobias Lear, who is shown to be as hypocritical and duplicitous as any other agent of Western imperial power in the play, the US occupation of Haiti was at the back of his mind. However, whether it was in the forefront of his mind during the critical years of 1932–34, as it was for so many black American writers, remains less clear. In 1936, James did discuss Haiti in his “Author’s Note” in the program of Toussaint Louverture, but his comment there—that “the independence so hardly won has been maintained” (45)—if anything seems to “silence” the occupation as much as draw attention to its ending. James’s main concern in his “Author’s Note” seems to have been to highlight to a British audience the fact that an independent black state had survived from the revolution to the present day, rather than to sound a warning about US neocolonialism. Dalleo himself recognizes that James “rarely acknowledged the possibility that [he] was writing with occupied Haiti in mind.” I remain skeptical of Dalleo’s argument that James felt “recolonization at the hands of a new US empire” (should contemporary colonial liberation movements in the Caribbean and elsewhere triumph over British and French imperialism) was a particularly clear and “present” danger in the early 1930s.22 However, this is not to say that James was in any way blind to issues of US neocolonialism, and the experience of not only Haiti but also Liberia would have doubtless registered in discussions about possible postcolonial futures in the Pan-Africanist circles in London James had begun to move in by 1933. In general, while Dalleo’s forthcoming discussion of James and occupied Haiti in Cultural Critique is to be greatly welcomed,23 my feeling is that for James the question of challenging the ideological justifications of British imperial power and his campaigning for “self-government” for the British Caribbean were more urgent concerns while writing Toussaint Louverture. James was acutely conscious of the need to challenge the mythological British nationalist narrative of abolition, one that glorified the role played by British parliamentarians such as Wilberforce, and which was on full display amid the year-long commemoration of the centenary of the abolition of slavery in the British Empire during 1933.24

Glick’s piece contains a most insightful and interesting discussion about Paul Robeson, and Glick is, I think, correct to note that “in James’s rhetorical universe, both Robeson and Toussaint work as a subtle synecdoche for the promise and potential of a liberated Black Nation.” However, my sense is that it is not just “the body on stage of a singular black radical intellectual” such as Robeson that “helps solidify the strategic priorities and theoretical commitments of a key text analyzing a Caribbean past in order to think about a radical future for the African continent”;25 rather, it is both the body and the mind of Robeson on stage which are worth considering further here. The story of the Haitian Revolution—precisely because it was intrinsically intertwined with the French Revolution—raises the critical question about the relationship of revolutionary movements in colonial peripheries with those in imperial metropoles. As the Jacobins were overthrown and the French Revolution descended into counter-revolution, the “black Jacobin” Toussaint did not have the political independence to avoid going down with it. As James put it in The Black Jacobins, Toussaint’s “allegiance to the French revolution and all it opened up for mankind in general and the people of San Domingo in particular, this had made him what he was. But in the end this ruined him.”26

When Robeson appeared in James’s Toussaint Louverture in 1936, an underlying subtle tension was also at play between two visions of what might be called “black Bolshevism,” given Robeson’s growing attachment and identification with the Soviet Union during the 1930s as an apparently antiracist bulwark against the rising threat of fascism, and James’s sense as a Trotskyist that the rising Stalinist bureaucracy represented a counter-revolutionary formation who had “betrayed” the Russian Revolution.27 In August 1936, the first of the Moscow Show Trials opened in order to decimate the remaining “Old Bolsheviks” (who were smeared as a “Trotskyite-Zinovievite Terrorist Centre”), and as Trotsky-Fascist became a legitimate term of abuse among Communists, the hopes of future collaboration between James and Robeson with Toussaint Louverture died, although the two remained on good terms personally.

Almost eighty years on, the publication of James’s original playscript allows both further scholarly discussion around a text that represents the literary companion volume to The Black Jacobins and the possibility of restaging what must stand as one of the most remarkable plays written about the Haitian Revolution. Laura Harris explored the question of James’s scripting of the slaves’ “tremendous responses” within Toussaint Louverture.28 In a twenty-first-century world of growing inter-imperialist rivalries and attempts by imperial powers to hijack revolutionary movements internationally, were this play by one of the twentieth century’s most outstanding anticolonial theorists and writers to be performed again, it is possible that such a production would not just allow “openings” for the performance of “creative, insurgent sociality” but would also—once again—meet with a “tremendous response” among its audience.


Christian Høgsbjerg is a Teaching Fellow in the Department of History at the University of York. He is the author of C. L. R. James in Imperial Britain (2014) and the editor of Toussaint Louverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History by C. L. R. James (2013). He has also recently published Chris Braithwaite: Mariner, Renegade, and Castaway (2014).


1 C. L. R. James, Toussaint Louverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History; A Play in Three Acts, ed. Christian Høgsbjerg (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013); hereafter cited in the text.

2 Scott McLemee, “Revolution on Stage,” Inside Higher Ed, 20 February 2013, In general, scholarship on Toussaint Louverture is still in its infancy, but see the reviews by Robert Spencer, in the Journal of Postcolonial Writing 50, no. 1 (2014): 116–17, and Chris Searle, in Race and Class 55, no. 3 (2014): 104–5. See also Nicosia Shakes, “History and Drama in C. L. R. James’s Toussaint Louverture,” C. L. R. James Journal 19, nos. 1–2 (2013): 38–60, and Fionnghuala Sweeney, “The Haitian Play: C. L. R James’ Toussaint Louverture, 1936,” International Journal of Francophone Studies 14, nos. 1–2 (2011): 143–63.

3 Anna Grimshaw, “C. L. R. James: A Revolutionary Vision for the Twentieth Century,” in Anna Grimshaw, ed., The C. L. R. James Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), 6.

4 Raphael Dalleo, “Shifting the Geography of C. L. R. James Studies: Christian Høgsbjerg’s Toussaint Louverture,” sx salon 16, July 2014, para. 6.

5 Stuart Hall, “Breaking Bread with History: C. L. R. James and The Black Jacobins; Stuart Hall Interviewed by Bill Schwarz,” History Workshop Journal, no. 46 (1998): 27.

6 David Scott, Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 75–76, 78.

7 Thomas Carlyle, Selected Writings, ed. Alan Shelston (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980), 195.

8 Jeremy Matthew Glick, “Paul Robeson as ‘Sporting Hero,’” sx salon 16, July 2014, para. 2.

9 Belinda Edmondson, for example, suggests James’s “emphasis on one central, masterful personality in an otherwise Marxist account of revolution makes sense only if we understand it to be a particularly West Indian, particularly middle-class and male version of revolutionary discourse.” See Belinda Edmondson, Making Men: Gender, Literary Authority, and Women’s Writing in Caribbean Narrative (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999), 106. See also Michelle Ann Stephens, Black Empire: The Masculine Global Imaginary of Caribbean Intellectuals in the United States, 1914–1962 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005).

10 C. L. R. James, Special Delivery: The Letters of C. L. R. James to Constance Webb, 1939–1948, ed. Anna Grimshaw (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), 82.

11 Grimshaw, “C. L. R. James,” 6.

12 James, Special Delivery, 83 (emphasis in original).

13 Laura Harris, “Hero as Instrument: Transmission in and through C. L. R. James’s Toussaint Louverture,” sx salon 16, July 2014, paras. 9, 10, 1.

14 C. L. R. James, Special Delivery, 84.

15 Harris, “Hero as Instrument,” para. 4. As an aside, I think Harris is mistaken to read the term sensation as a stage direction inserted into Wendell Phillips’s speech by James in his American Civilization—it seems to me more likely that sensation was already written in whichever edition of Phillips’s speeches James was quoting from. Ibid., para. 7.

16 Dalleo rightly describes Toussaint Louverture as “significant for many reasons,” among them, that when it was produced in 1936 it was “the first play written by a black person and performed by a black cast to be staged in London” (“Shifting the Geography,” para. 1). This is not strictly quite true. In 1933, At What a Price, a play about family life in Jamaica, was written by the black Jamaican Una Marson and was performed by a predominantly black cast composed of members of the League of Coloured Peoples in London. However, it was the presence of professional—rather than amateur—black actors, above all, Paul Robeson, in James’s Toussaint Louverture that made it a historic production in respect of black theater in Britain.

17 For more on James’s turn to Marxism, see my C. L. R. James in Imperial Britain (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014).

18 Leon Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution (London: Pluto, 1977), 17.

19 See Mary A. Renda, Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of US Imperialism, 1915–1940 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001). See also Kate Dossett, “Commemorating Haiti on the Harlem Stage,” Journal of American Drama and Theatre 22, no. 1 (2010): 83–119.

20 See Arnold Rampersad, The Life of Langston Hughes, vol. 1, 1902–1941: I, Too, Sing America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), 165, 204–9, 330–31; and Langston Hughes, “Emperor of Haiti,” in Errol Hill, ed., Black Heroes: Seven Plays (New York: Applause Theatre Book Publishers, 1989). Hughes also wrote an opera, Troubled Island, based on the play, which was nearly ready for performance in 1938. For more on Hughes and Haiti, see Philip Kaisary, The Haitian Revolution in the Literary Imagination: Radical Horizons, Conservative Constraints (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014), 37–55.

21 Christian Høgsbjerg, “Rufus E. Fennell: A Literary Pan-Africanist in Britain,” Race and Class 56, no. 1 (2014): 59-80.

22 Dalleo, “Shifting the Geography,” para. 5.

23 Raphael Dalleo, “‘The Independence So Hardly Won Has Been Maintained’: C. L. R. James and the US Occupation of Haiti,” Cultural Critique, no. 87 (Spring 2014) : 38–59.

24 Indeed, in the original version of the playscript, James did actually mention Wilberforce himself in passing, but then later in a handwritten revision (one that I respected), decided to remove this explicit reference to the abolitionist Tory MP. The handwritten revision was almost certainly made to help bring home to a British audience the essential truth about abolition—that central to the emancipation from slavery were the actions of the enslaved themselves.

25 Glick, “Hero as Instrument,” paras. 3, 6.

26 C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (London: Penguin, 2001), 236.

27 Here I agree with what Anthony Bogues apparently told Jeremy Glick, that this tension is not just about masculinity but also about competing interpretations of Lenin. This tension over revolutionary politics would have also been one fault line among what Glick calls “James’s Pan-Africanist London milieu” and was one key motivation for James to write his pioneering study of “the rise and fall of the Communist International,” World Revolution, in 1937. Glick, “Hero as Instrument,” para. 2, note 8; para. 6.

28 Harris, “Hero as Instrument,” para. 8.


Related Articles