Imperialism and apocalypse: An interview with Gerald Horne


Historian and political activist Gerald Horne is the Moores Professor of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston. He grew up te Missouri, where he graduated from Beaumont High School in St. Louis in 1966, and obtained a Bachelor’s degree from Princetion (1970), a J.D. from University of California, Berkeley (1973), and a Ph.D. in history from Columbia University (1982). He is the author of more than thirty books addressing the questions of racism, labor, politics, civil rights, international relations, and war. The Public Archive interviewed him about two of his more recent books, Confronting Black Jacobins: The United States, the Haitian Revolution, and the Origins of the Dominican Republic and The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism: The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, and Capitalism in Seventeenth-Century North America and the Caribbean. Both were published by Monthly Review Press.

The Public Archive: I want to begin by asking you about your intellectual biography. You have a law degree from Berkeley and were a practicing lawyer before returning to graduate school at Columbia to complete your PhD in history, with an excellent dissertation, titled Black and Red: W.E.B. DuBois and the Cold War, 1944-1963. What first led you to law and then from law to history? And can you say something about how your approach to archives and research developed during your studies?

Gerald Horne: What led me first to law was the political activism of an earlier era. I went to Berkeley in part because I wanted to be close to the Black Panther Party, whose roots were in nearby Oakland; like others I saw the formation of the BPP as an excitingly transcendent development. Alas, by the time I graduated the political climate had taken a turn for the worst and it was apparent that I—like many others—miscalculated the strength of the U.S. right wing and its capacity for Counter-Revolution, a trend I have addressed explicitly in my historical writing. So, I moved to New York City and became involved with various forces, including Herbert Aptheker’s American Institute for Marxist Studies and Esther Jackson’s Freedomways magazine and related entities, not to mention anti-apartheid activism and trade union activism (Hospital Workers Union) and the National Conference of Black Lawyers. I also entered graduate school in History at Columbia. As for the archives, my association with the foregoing led me to the Du Bois Papers—Aptheker and Jackson both worked closely with him—and my dissertation and first book. It seemed obvious to me that there had to be a deeper explanation for how the mighty Du Bois was made marginal in the last few decades of his life–just as desegregation seemed to be taking root. I explored this apparent paradox in this and other works.

Confronting Black Jacobins has an obvious debt to CLR James’ classic study, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint Louverture and the San Domingo Revolution. What is the impact of James’ work on your own writing and how does your book diverge from James’?

Like James I have sought to emphasize the world historic importance of the Haitian Revolution, how it ignited a General Crisis of the entire slave system that could only be resolved with its collapse and how that was a condition precedent for the post-U.S. Civil War rise of a working-class movement and a socialist movement—not just in North America but globally. Unlike James, however, I see 1776 and the formation of the resultant republic as not a step forward but a Great Leap Backwards, to which 1804 administered a fitting rebuff. Likewise—unlike James—I write of the de facto alliance between Hayti and Britain in confronting the slaveholders’ republic in North America. Perhaps the difference has something to do with my being born under the “Stars and Stripes” and he under the “Union Jack”?

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