Sunday, April 11, 2010

C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins: Chapter 12, "The Bourgeoisie Prepares to Restore Slavery"

Napoleon was determined to subdue San Domingo and restore slavery. His motive was not prejudice (although he had plenty of that) or an eagerness for colonies but profit for his bourgeois supporters. Once his plans to use Russia to strike at British India were foiled, he had no reason to hesitate any longer. Fully aware of the formidable foe he faced, he launched the largest French overseas expedition in history -- 20,000 men -- on 21 November, 1801.

Toussaint continued his policy of appeasing whites, hoping this would convince Napoleon not to invade. He was not able to come to terms with the fact that the die had been cast, that the decision to attack had already been made. Revolutionary blacks became increasingly discontented with Toussaint's policy, and they revolted in the North province in late September. Toussaint harshly suppressed the revolt, and had Moise, whom he suspected of anti-white revolutionary tendencies, executed as well. Toussaint's approach disoriented the black masses who were essential to defending the island while also failing to overawe the white who could disable the island's defense from within.

James contends that if if Toussaint had communicated the prospect of an invasion and the aim of his policies in forestalling it more openly, he could have retained the support of the black laborers. He draws a parallel to Robespierre, who also crushed his left-wing supporters and destroyed his own defense in doing so. But, according to James, Robespierre could only be expected to do this because he was, after all, bourgeois, while there was no difference in political outlook between Toussaint and the masses. Their difference, he contends, was only in the view of how to manage the issue of race in order to secure the interests of the laborers. Accommodation had to be made to the understandable anti-white feelings of the black masses, according to James, in order to sustain their support for revolution -- and there was little to be lost, since the whites within and without could not be won over by further accommodation, anyway.

This seems right as a prescription for policy, but I have to think that James has misapprehended his man here. It strikes me that there was an ideological gap between Toussaint and the masses. In the end, it was not just a vain hope for appeasement that drove Toussaint's policy, but his essentially bourgeois inclinations. He saw promoting and protecting of the rights of property -- albeit without slavery -- as a positive good. And in the end, the black masses were not going to be content as mere laborers.

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