cedric robinson, slave uprisings, and the black radical tradition

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Again and again, in the reports, casual memoirs, official accounts, eye-witness observations, and histories of each of the tradition’s episodes, from the sixteenth century to the events recounted in last week’s or last month’s journals, one note has occurred and recurred: the absence of mass violence. Western observers, often candid in their amazement, have repeatedly remarked that in the vast series of encounters between Blacks and their oppressors, only some of which have been recounted above, Blacks have seldom employed the level of violence that they (the Westerners) understood the situation required. When we recall that in the New World of the nineteenth century the approximately 60 whites killed in the Nat Turner insurrection was one of the largest totals for that century; when we recall that in the massive uprisings of slaves in 1831 in Jamaica — where 300,000 slaves lived under the domination of 30,000 whites — only 14 white casualties were reported, when in revolt after revolt we compare the massive and often indiscriminate reprisals of the civilized master class (the employment of terror) to the scale of violence of the slaves (and at present their descendants), at least one impression is that a very different and shared order of things existed among these brutally violated people. Why did Nat Turner, admittedly a violent man, spare poor whites? Why did Toussaint escort his absent “master’s” family to safety before joining the slave revolution? Why did Toussaint escort his absent “master’s” family to safety before joining the slave revolution? Why was “no white person killed in a slave rebellion in colonial Virginia?” Why would Edmund Morgan or Gerald Mullin argue that slave brutality was directly related to acculturation, “that the more slaves came to resemble the indigent freemen whom they displaced, the more dangerous they became”? Every century it was the same. The people with Chilembwe in 1915 force-marched European women and children to the safety of colonist settlement. And in that tradition, in the 1930s, James ambivalently found Dessalines wanting for his transgressions of the tradition. Dessalines was a military genius, yes. He was shrewd, cunning, but he was also a man whose hatred had to be kept “in check.”

There was violence of course, but in this tradition it most often was turned inward: the active against the passive, or as was the case of the Nongquase of 1856, the community against its material aspect. This was not “savagery” as the gentlemen-soldiers of nineteenth- and twentieth-century European armies arrogantly reported to their beloved publics at home. Neither was it the “fratricide” of Fanon’s extended Freudianism. And only seldom was it the devouring “revolutionary terror” of the “international bourgeois democratic revolution” that Genovese’s neo-Marxism has led him to acknowledge. This violence was not inspired by an external object, it was not understood as a part of an attack on a system, or an engagement with an abstraction of oppressive structures and relations. Rather it was their “Jonestown,” our Nongquase: The renunciation of actual being for historical being; the preservation of the ontological totality granted by a metaphysical system that had never allowed for property in either the physical, philosophical, temporal, legal, social, or psychic senses. For them defeat or victory was an internal affair. Like those in the 1950s who took the mountains and forests of Kenya to become the Land and Freedom Army, the material or “objective” power of the enemy was irrelevant to their destinies. His machines, which flung metal missiles, his vessles of smoke, gas, fire, disease, all were of lesser relevance than the integral totality of the people themselves. This was what Chilembwe meant when he entreated his people to “strike and blow and die.” This is what all the Jakobos in all the thousands of Chishawashas and all the tens of thousands of beer-parties that dot the Black world have been saying for tens of generations: “we had only ourselves to blame for defeat.” This was a revolutionary consciousness that proceeded from the whole historical experience of Black people and not merely from the social formations of capitalist slavery or the relations of production of colonialism.

Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, 168-69.


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