Two passages will immediately place the general outline and orient the reader to the broad limits of the interpretation to which the period of C. L. R. James's first stay in England will be treated. Both passages are drawn from his own later work, Beyond A Boundary 1963), and the first comes from Chapter 8. Here James states:
In March 1932 I boarded the boat for Plymouth. I was about to enter the arena where I was to play the role for which I had prepared myself. The British intellectual was going to Britain, (pages 114-15)
The second passage, found in Chapter 12 of the same book, counterposes in telescoped fashion the evolved stage of James's political position. The passage reads:
(Between 1932 and 1938) fiction-writing drained out of me and was replaced by politics. I became a Marxist, a Trotskyist. I published large books and small articles on these and kindred subjects. I wrote and spoke. Like many others, I expected war, and during or after the war social revolution. In 1938 a lecture tour took me to the United States and I stayed there fifteen years, (page 149)
Thus, the perspective of what actually overtook the intellectual development of James during the period 1932-1938 should be very straightforward. It was a leap out of the world of Thackeray and nineteenth-century intellectual concerns into the world of international socialist revolution. Simply put, world revolution. But what is not so simple, at least still undetected, are the actual circumstances surrounding the process through which the transformation was achieved. The present essay will attempt to suggest the contours and content of this achievement.
By anyone's standards, it was a monumental achievement, which staggers the mind simply in the recounting of it. In order that the full stature of James's actual accomplishments may be settled and recognized from the outset, it would be best to simply itemize them. The list runs as follows:
1. (Published for the West Indies) The Life of Captain Cipriani, 1932.
2. The Case for West Indian Self-Government, 1933. (An abridged English version of the above published under its real title.)
3. Learie Constantine's Cricket and I, 1932, the writing of which James was largely responsible for.
4. Minty Alley, 1936, a novel.
5. International Friends of Ethiopia, 1935-1937.
6. Toussaint L'Ouverture, in which Paul Robeson played the leading role in its London production, 1936.
7. International African Service Bureau, official organ, formed out of the IAFE in 1937 by George Padmore. Editor of International African Opinion, 1938.
8. The first historical account of the Third International, World Revolution: 1917-1936. The Rise and Fall of the Communist International, 1937.
9. English translation of Boris Souvarine's biography, Stalin, 1938.
10. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the Haitian Revolution, 1938.
11. A History of Negro Revolt, 1939.
All of this was done between March 1932 and October 1938, when he sailed for the United States, a period of just over six and a half years. In method it meant prodigious effort and concentration; in measurement, the results were prolific and gave example of the man's tremendous diversity of interest and capacities; in consequence, it touched all corners of the world-wide revolutionary struggle. Finally, in between much of the actual work on the above matters, James went about earning some regular pail of his living by reporting on English first-class cricket for The Manchester Guardian newspaper.
It would be trying to reach for the impossible if we sought after a complete description of James's evolution over this pivotal six-year stretch in England. Many separate histories are bound up together in each stage of his work, and each would separately necessitate a great deal further research. In addition, it would alike be too much to attempt an exhaustive analysis of each work. In the present context and at this stage of our knowledge, it will be sufficient to give only a kind of perspective in reviewing James's life for this period, while at the same time making some tentative conclusions of the import which it has for the man's development into one of the major political thinkers of the twentieth century.
From James's own later account in Beyond A Boundary, we learn that in 1931 he planned to go to England so that he could "write books." (page 114) This fact came out in the course of James's agreeing to do the actual writing of Learie Constantine's projected book on the history of West Indian cricket. But this was only, according to James, "a preparatory operation," for in accepting Constantine's offer to sponsor his trip to England as a writer, the seed of a remarkable partnership and an even more remarkable future was being nourished. James himself tells us: "This transcendence of our relations as cricketers was to initiate the West Indian renaissance not only in cricket, but in politics, in history and in writing." (page 114)
At this period, however, Constantine the cricketer was the more political of the two, for as James attests, though his "sentiments were in the right place, I was still enclosed within the mould of nineteenthcentury intellectualism." Then he tells us that the shell really began to crack under the impact of the political capability demonstrated by the people of Trinidad under the leadership of Captain Cipriani. "I was caught up in it like many others and began to take notice," James states. Before this, however, it was Constantine's "'they are no better than we'" that had first made the initial breach in James's naive good faith in the fairness of sporting convention, albeit colonial social convention. This last was the test of a conviction in social egali-tarianism but now under the pressure of witnessing national injustice. Before leaving Trinidad, James had arrived at the point where, he tells us; "My hitherto vague ideas of freedom crystalized around a political conviction: we should be free to govern ourselves." (page 119)
This newly won conviction was the guiding principle around which he organized the two manuscripts which accompanied him to England in the spring of 1932. One was a history of cricket in the West Indies which he had already begun preparing with Constantine; the second was his biography of Captain Cipriani. Together they subsumed the discovery of political nationalism, West Indian nationalism in this instance.
The first published was The Life of Captain Cipriani, the cost of which was borne by Constantine, in whose home in Nelson, Lancashire, James was staying and where he finished the final draft. Constantine approved and paid for it to be printed, and it was sent home to the West Indies, where it came to play a significant role in orienting many individuals when the widespread labor riots broke out in 1937-38.
There are many unique features to the book, but here it will suffice to point out what to the present writer is the most significant. Although the political conception of the work was governed by the need to state in carefully reasoned terms the capacity then of West Indian society for self-government and national independence, the book suggests very clearly the source of James's later espousal of Marxism as a philosophical and political outlook. In this sense it could be said that James was writing as a Marxist even before he engaged consciously in the articulation of Marxism as a scientific method.
Behind the delineation of Cipriani as the outstanding West Indian political personality and the overall readiness of West Indian society in assuming self-rule, the book bases its perspective on the vindication of the West Indian soldier and his achievement in the Great War of 1914-1918. Collectively as the West India Regiment, these soldiers opened out a whole new stage in the development of West Indian life. In reviewing their achievement and its significance for Cipriani's emergence as a political leader, James informs us:
It was in the army that many of the soldiers, a medley from all the British West Indian islands, for the first time wore shoes consistently. But they were the product of their peculiar history. The speed with which they adjusted themselves to the spiritual and material requirements of a modern war amazed all observers, from General Allenby down. Cipriani made a reputation for himself by his militant defence of the regiment against all prejudice, official and unofficial. To the end of his days he spoke constantly of the recognition they had won. ('Appendix,' The Black Jacobins, 2nd ed., 1963, page 403)
What this passage hints at was the fact that James by 1932 had discovered more than political nationalism. He had discovered the socially revolutionizing force of the "inarticulate" and their primary role in overcoming and breaking out of the contradictions of the historical process. Indeed, Cipriani's true stature rests on his response as a leader to "the barefooted man" and the consequent political interaction between them. The effects, a large part of which would be undone before they could finally defeat colonial rule, were not as important as the source out of which it sprang. Not the educated colonial middle-class, but the "barefooted man" it was who showed that the society had achieved genuine political modernity, and this was signalled by the adjustment made by West Indian soldiers in the course of the War's unprecedented challenges.
However, if James's discovery of the "inarticulate" soldier in the War was prelude to his later locating a scientific method in Marxism for explaining the true nature of popular forces in history, the nationalism of the book itself suggested something deeper than mere territorial attribute. Indeed, nationalism in this instance was based on the unconscious principle which would later characterize the genuine uniqueness of James's Marxism. That uniqueness is best summed up by James himself in the following passage from Beyond a Boundary:
Time would pass, old empires would fall and new ones take their place, the relations of countries and the relations of classes had to change, before I discovered that it is not quality of goods and utility which matter, but movement; not where you are or what you have, but where you have come from, where you are going and the rate at which you are getting there, (pages 116-17)
The Life of Captain Cipriani was soon taken up by Leonard and Virginia Woolf and their circle, as a result of which James did an abridgement of the book which was published in the succeeding year under its real title, The Case for West Indian Self-Government (1933). It appeared as Number Sixteen in the series, "Day to Day Pamphlets," published by The Hogarth Press.
Before both of these, however, came the book which he had begun working on with Constantine in Trinidad the year before arriving in England. Listening "once more to Constantine with my pad on my knee," Cricket and I became much more than a mere cricket book. To James it meant "the first book ever published in England by a world-famous West Indian writing as a West Indian about people and events in the West Indies."
With these works out of the way, James was quickly shedding his ties which he had brought with him from Trinidad. The completed novel which he had brought with him to England was discarded in favor of a succeeding work, Minty Alley, which in time was to prove to be the first of the West Indian novels to be published in England. The novel appeared in 1936 as one of the very first group of books published by the new house of Martin Seeker and Warburg Ltd. It attempted an account of a childhood in the West Indies, in which the social ambience of a fused colonial community was analyzed in terms of the simultaneously operating extremes of class privilege and class oppression. (A reprint of Minty Alley has been published by New Beacon Publishers in Britain.)
The general effect of this initial burst of literary activity emanating out of Constantine's home in Nelson was that, as James puts it, "henceforth the West Indies was speaking for itself to the modern world." (page 124) It was also the completion more or less of James's West Indian period, a period in which cricket and the case of West Indian self-government went hand in hand. But at a certain stage in the course of these preoccupations, James informs us "literature was vanishing from my consciousness and politics was substituting itself." (page 124) James is also very right in remarking that it was "no easy transition" to make. It was more than just a question of finding some means of supporting himself. The transition was not one from a purely West Indian focus to that of a larger political view, for even here the West Indies served as the basis or point of departure. James describes the general beginning of the new stage in the following manner:
West Indian history now began to assume a new importance. Stuck away in the back of my head for years was the project of writing a biography of Toussaint L'Ouverture — the leader of the revolt of the slaves in the French colony of San Domingo. This revolt and the successful establishment of the state of Haiti is the most outstanding event in the history of the West Indies. (Beyond A Boundary, page 122)
From this beginning in Nelson, the project would move on to incorporate revolutionary ideas of history and society and to be placed at the purpose of wider freedoms. But if it is there that we can mark the real beginning of James's fundamental movement to the Left, the West Indies was his preparation, and the books which had gone before were "new material, new in that (their) premises are the future, not the past." (page 124)
It should be pointed out, however, that James had already begun to acquaint himself with left-wing ideas while in Nelson. He tells us:
I soon made friends in the local Labour Party, attended their meetings, spoke to them. Some of Constantine's intimate friends who came to the house often found congenial company in me, apart from cricket. My Labour and Socialist ideas had been got from books and were rather abstract. These humorously cynical working men were a revelation and brought me down to earth, (page 122)
James goes on to state how, upon the publication in Nelson of his Life of Captain Cipriani, his "Labour friends made merry with it." Finally, James states that during this period he "was reading hard. . . . Night after night I would be up till three or four." (page 124) What was he reading so earnestly? James tells us: "I had not been long in Nelson before I began to import from France the books that I would need to prepare a biography of Toussaint." (pages 122-23)
Three different strands were being fused around the projected biography of Toussaint. The first was James's fairly regular contact with members of Nelson's working-class. The second was his reading of socialist literature, even though he claims that the ideas which issued from it were "rather abstract." The third strand, about which one cannot say too much until James himself tells us a great deal more about how he came to write The Black Jacobins, was the preparatory reading in French historiography. This factor, however, has not yet received the careful attention it deserves. James indeed alludes to its significance for the eventual writing of the book in the following passages taken from the "Bibliography":
It is impossible to understand the San Domingo revolution unless it is studied in close relationship with the revolution in France. Fortunately the French historical school of the French Revolution is one of the greatest historical schools of Western civilisation, combines scholarship with the national spirit and taste, and with that respect for the Revolution without which the history of revolution cannot be written, (page 383)
I have sought all through to show the direct influence of the Revolution on events and leading personalities in San Domingo. . . . I have tried to show the close parallels, hitherto unsuspected, which can be found between events in two populations so widely separated and so diverse in origin. Studies of events, in France and in San Domingo, will not fail to unearth more, (page 385)
The conclusion which the present writer draws from the foregoing is that French radical historiography, which James began to immerse himself in while still living in Nelson, played an important part in helping to create very definite radical political responses on James's part. At the very least, it was instrumental in helping James to make the transition from literature to a political consciousness, and from a West Indian to a world consciousness.
At some point during this time, though the writer cannot be certain, James left Nelson to enter upon the broader cultural and political milieu of London. The early West Indian period had ended and James was now on his way to a full-fledged career in radical Marxist politics. He read thoroughly into the Stalin-Trotsky split, which then forced him to go behind it and himself search out Lenin's own views on the development of the October Revolution. Inexorably this process led him to undertake a systematic examination of Marx's own writings and to measure these against what had taken place in Russia.
The process of theoretical self-education, however, was interrupted in 1935 by the exigencies of directing an organized defense campaign on behalf of the Ethiopians whose country had been invaded by Mussolini's military forces. This marked James's baptism in the headwaters of the modern Pan-African movement. In response to the Italian invasion, together with Arthur Lewis, Amy Ashwood Garvey, Jomo Kenyatta, and others, James organized the International African Friends of Ethiopia, which aimed at educating British and International opinion and to agitate against the imperialist plans for Africa. It was also the year in which George Padmore, after his break with Moscow over the question of supporting the "democratic" imperialist countries of the West, arrived in London, where he was to settle until 1957. Padmore joined in the efforts by serving on the Committee with James as Chairman. Like so many others throughout the world at the time, Black men and women were deeply aroused to a sense of urgent unity on behalf of Ethiopia's defense. Though it cannot be gone into here, it is the present writer's view that the Abyssinian invasion marked the turning-point of nineteenth-century and post-Wpr Black nationalism and paved the way for the emergence of an explicitly political Pan-Africanism. The difference was to be found in the new social content with which the ideas of African emancipation became infused. In this process, the contribution of C. L. R, James would prove to be one of the essential factors in clearly establishing the changed outlook.
By 1937, however, the conjunction of Pan-African agitation and organized Trotskyism was complete, for not only was James advocating both objectives simultaneously but he had become part in both cases of the type of organized activity which would characterize the rest of his entire political career, namely, the small Marxist organization. This is a distinct political formation with deep historical roots and deserves much greater scholarly attention than it has hitherto received. In any case, James between 1936 and 1938 had found himself ideologically as well as organizationally and was embarked upon the political course which would see him become a full-time, professional Marxist theoretician.
The first step in the direction of developing a small Marxist organization was made when James gathered about himself in 1936 a circle of Trotskyists in London. The burning question of that period for the international socialist movement was Trotsky's "permanent revolution" versus Stalin's "socialism in one country." The Stalinists had control of the organs of Soviet state-power as well as the party apparatuses of the many Western European communist organizations. To combat this array of power and propaganda, the Trotskyist movement at the time had essentially the single resource of its leader, Trotsky. It lacked, however, any coherent theoretical statement of its position. To this end James set out to make good the weakness, and from the attempt emerges in 1937 the book, World Revolution, 1917-1936: The Rise and Fall of the Communist International (Kraus Reprint, 1970).
Once again the book, the second within a year, was published by Fredric Warburg of the new company, Martin Seeker and Warburg Ltd. James had been one of the first authors introduced by Fenner Brockway to Warburg, who shortly afterwards was also assisted to meet and publish George Padmore, Jomo Kenyatta, George Orwell, Jennie Lee, etc. Together they formed that brilliant cluster of political writers who centered around the Independent Labor Party's weekly newspaper, New Leader. Warburg published World Revolution in April 1937 and he described it in his published memoirs, An Occupation For Gentlemen (1959), as having achieved the status of "a kind of Bible of Trotskyism." (page 211)
The book was dedicated to "The Marxist Group," which was in fact James's small political circle of Trotskyists. James in the Preface notes that the book "could never have been written at all but for the material patiently collected and annotated in France, China, America, Germany and Russia," thus showing here also the very tightly knit relationship among political forces of the small organization in the exchange of information and in the analysis of ideas.
Though James might shortly after the publication of World Revolution be ready to abandon the political theory of Trotskyism, something much more fundamental would remain from his participation in the European Trotskyist movement between 1936 and 1938. This crucial factor continues to elude a great many of James's admirers even to this day. The key to what was fundamental about James's involvement in the Trotskyist movement in Europe can be gleaned from the following statement by Franz Borkenau:
Whether there was real degeneration or whether, under Stalin, all the intrinsic trends of the dictatorship came simply to the surface, is no matter of discussion here. Anyway, earlier than in any other country, as soon as serious dissensions started in Russia after the death of Lenin, large groups of communists in France felt that this was no longer the regime they had admired. Thus a considerable section sided with Trotsky, mistaking him for a champion of liberty against Stalin. (European Communism, 1953, pages 261-62)[*]
When due allowance is made for Borkenau's obvious political bias against the revolutionary struggle, the significant fact remains that a large body of Trotsky's followers, not just in France but throughout the European working-class movement, were genuine Leninists who, while not willing to tolerate Stalin's betrayal, went with Trotsky because he seemed to offer a possibility of sustaining the revolutionary political principles of Lenin. The cadres whom James became associated with in the Trotskyist movement were bearers of the political thought and practice of Lenin and Bolshevism at its prime. Most of them could be classified as Trotskyists only secondarily. From them James gained an immense knowledge of the internal make-up of the revolutionary socialist movement and the special role which outstanding workers came to play in its development. These men carried within themselves actual proof of those traditions. One of the most remarkable examples of the general type was Harry Wicks, and from him James gathered first-hand knowledge of the intimate political history of the European revolutionary movement.
Out of this same general milieu of political links with veteran Leninists issued James's translation from the French in September 1938 of Boris Souvarine's massive (704 pages) biography of Stalin. Leonard Schapiro terms it "the best biography of Stalin" (The Communist Party of the Soviet Union, 2nd ed., 1971, page 638). The book's publisher, the venerable Fredric Warburg, rendered the following opinion: "Thoroughly documented, written with a fine narrative sweep, imbued with a firsthand knowledge of its subject, it was and probably remains the best book available on Stalin's life and policy up to 1936." (An Occupation For Gentlemen, 1959, page 270)
The book was a tremendous success for its day, selling over 2,000 copies by June 1940. Two reasons accounted for its reception, one critical and the second political. The latter reason had to do with the fact that the book appeared very propitiously, within a month of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, thus increasing the public's awareness of its significance. The first reason, however, had to do with the extremely authoritative air of the work itself. He had been fortunate to receive from Trotsky many valuable and original documents which contained authentic data on political developments within the highest circles of the Russian Party and Administration. Trotsky knew very well what he was doing when he handed these documents over to Souvarine, who while being a Russian had risen to a leading position in the French Communist Party shortly after its inception. Borkenau tells us that Souvarine was "one of the most far-sighted men in the Comintern, [who] as early as 1924 spoke of the end of the revolutionary era and the 'degeneration' of the Soviet regime in Russia." (page 261) That awareness caused Souvarine in 1924 to be deposed from the leadership of the French party-group in the Communist International. He was ultimately excluded from membership in the French Party altogether in 1928, along with those other leaders who stood firm on their independence from Moscow's line, viz., Prossard, Loriot, Monatte, Suzann Girault, Treint, Paz.
The work of translation was many months in preparation, and eventually James's lateness with the completed translation caused the, book to appear much later than originally scheduled. That, however, was a boon in disguise since it only made the book's appearance before the public more forceful in the light of the circumstances surrounding the Hitler-Stalin Pact. The actual job of translation had necessitated James spending quite a bit of time with Souvarine in Paris going over it with him. Out of this collaboration would have developed additional political insights on James's part that added to his already significant store of accumulated education in the history of Bolshevism. Borkenau reinforces this view when he points out that "perhaps the best idea of the connection of Bolshevism with pre- Marxist Russian revolutionism is to be got from Souvarine's Stalin."
The importance to James's work of this process of developing personal/ political/organizational connections through individuals who embodied the really revolutionary political stance of the age was nowhere more fundamental than in the preparation The Black Jacobins (1938), the magnum opus on which more than anything else James's reputation as a scholar and political theoretician rests. Before the actual historical contribution of that book is discussed, however, it will be necessary to describe the "new premises" surrounding it by explaining the way in which the book was linked in two very important directions.
The first link was in the person of Paul Robeson, about whom a great deal has been written by James himself (Black World, December 1970). James had completed in 1937 a script for a play based on the life of and entitled, Toussaint L'Ouverture. Persons who read the script were inspired to attempt a production of it if Paul Robeson could be interested in accepting the title role of Toussaint. James set out with the script to meet and invite Robeson to consider it. He succeeded and Robeson eventually starred in the London production.
What was important, however, was not so much the play itself nor the fact of Robeson's acceptance of the lead. More important than all of these was the context which the production of the play provided for James to get to know the person whom he considers to be one of the greatest political figures of the twentieth century. Indeed, James looks upon Robeson along with Franklin D. Roosevelt as being the two most important American political personalities of the age. The fact that at the time Robeson was in support of Moscow and the Stalinist parties and James was firmly wedded to the Fourth International of Trotsky was no hindrance to their mutual appreciation.
That in itself, however, would not have been sufficient to make Robeson the decisive personality that he was for James. At a very profound and fundamental level, Robeson as a man shattered James's colonial conception of the Black Physique. In its place the magnificent stature of Robeson gave to him a new appreciation of the powerful and extraordinary capacities which the African possessed, in both head and body. Robeson broke the mould in which the West Indian conception of physical personality in James had been formed. That was a time when Black West Indians grew up with an unconscious prototype of the white Englishman and white Englishwoman as their absolute standards of physical perfection and development. James's encounter with Robeson was nowhere more profound than in its forcing him to abandon these inherited values.
For James, therefore, Toussaint was consequently more than just a matter of politics. The Black Jacobins is truly a classical achievement in the balance it maintains between the careful interpretation of politico-historical events and the unique resources of personality to have manifested themselves in Toussaint, Christophe, Dessalines, Rigaud, Roume, and the remarkable General Moise. Once we understand the nature of the balance we can begin to genuinely appreciate what appears to be those elements of paradox in the Preface to the book:
The transformation of slaves, trembling in hundreds before a single white man, into a people able to organize themselves and defeat the most powerful European nations of their day, is one of the great epics of revolutionary struggle and achievement. Why and how this happened is the theme of this book, (page ix)
By a phenomenon often observed, the individual leadership responsible for this unique achievement was almost entirely the work of a single man — Toussaint L'Ouverture. . . . Yet Toussaint did not make the revolution. It was the revolution that made Toussaint. And even that is not the whole truth, (pages ix-x)
Thus, it is the contention of the present writer that The Black Jacobins would have been significantly different in quality in the absence of James's relationship to Robeson.
The second link, which gave point and purpose to the book, is to be traced in James's relationship to George Padmore. In the Preface to the Second Edition, James states the essential proposition of The Black Jacobins very simply as follows:
I have retained the concluding pages which envisage and were intended to stimulate the coming emancipation of Africa. They are a part of the history of our time. In 1938 only the writer and a handful of close associates thought, wrote and spoke as if the African events of the last quarter of a century were imminent.
The principal and always guiding figure among the "handful of close associates" referred to by James was the venerable Trinidadian, George Padmore, who along with James, Jomo Kenyatta, Wallace-Johnson, and T. Ras Makonnen, was the person most responsible for directing the work of the International African Service Bureau, which was established in March 1937 from the remnants of James's International African Friends of Ethiopia group. When the Ethiopian question was over, the problem arose as to what was to follow. Padmore then moved to form the IASB, an organization devoted to the study of the colonial question in Africa and to agitating on the basis of spreading this political knowledge all over Britain.
The motto of the IASB was: "Educate, co-operate, emancipate. Neutral in nothing affecting the African people." Between July and October 1938, when he left for America on a lecture tour, James was editor of the group's organ, International African Opinion, and responsible for its literary publications generally. Here once again was James functioning as part of an innovative "small organization" and attempting to project theoretical analyses, based in this instance on slave revolt in the Caribbean, to the present concrete tasks of political life in the shape of African emancipation from colonial rule. Perhaps the most powerful section of the entire original Preface was the concluding paragraph, in which James very graphically and movingly attested to the urgent tasks which he thought his history of the San Domingo Revolution exemplified:
Tranquility to-day is either innate (the philistine) or to be acquired only by a deliberate doping of the personality. It was in the stillness of a seaside suburb that could be heard most clearly and insistently the booming of Franco's heavy artillery, the rattle of Stalin's firing squads and the fierce shrill turmoil of the revolutionary movement striving for clarity and influence. Such is our age and this book is of it (1937: note) with something of the fever and the fret. Nor does the writer regret it. The book is the history of a revolution and written under different circumstances it would have been a different but not necessarily a better book, (page xi)
And the special "clarity and influence" which James was attempting to achieve with the book was the focus of the African Revolution. James later on reflected in Nkrumah Then and Now on the import of this endeavor as part of an organized political struggle, comparing it with Padmore's own efforts in the following manner:
My own approach was different, and although I was immersed in the British revolutionary movement, I worked on the application of Marxist and Leninist ideas to the coming African Revolution, and for this purpose wrote Black Jacobins, a full-scale study of the only successful revolution of people of African descent that the world had yet seen — the revolt of the slaves in the French colony of San Domingo during the French Revolution which ended in the establishment of the state of Haiti. . . . Historical in form, it drew its contemporaneousness, as all such books must, from the living struggle around us, and particularly from the daily activity that centered around Pad-more and the African Bureau. It represented in a specific form the general ideas that we held at the time, it is still the only book of its kind. . . . The theoretical basis of the book, amply demonstrated, is that in a period of world-wide revolutionary change, such as that of 1789-1815 and our period which began with 1917, the revolutionary crisis lifts backward peoples over centuries and projects them into the very forefront of the advanced movement of the day. The slaves in San Domingo were two-thirds raw Africans from the Guinea Coast in a strange country, many of them not knowing the language. Yet with the example and slogans of the French Revolution, these for the most part illiterate blacks organized themselves in a manner fully comparable to the great achievements of the mass movement in France, produced a body of great leaders in politics, administration, differentiated among themselves in clear alignments of Right, Left and Centre, and all in all showed themselves immensely superior in every human quality to the highly educated colonial officials and ministers in France who ruled them. . . . The reader is asked to note the complete confidence in the self-emancipation of the African people from imperialism as a contemporary political issue that imbued everything we did, and if he is interested, to compare it with the dreary repetition of percentages of literacy, centuries of barbarism, centuries of training, and all the rubbish now in the dust-bins that characterised the official attitudes and pronouncements of the time.
We can now more fully appreciate the awesome significance of the conclusion which James wrote to The Black Jacobins:
Finally those black Haitian labourers and the Mulattoes have given us an example to study. Despite the temporary reaction of Fascism, the prevailing standards of human liberty and equality are infinitely more advanced and more profound than those current in 1789. Judged relatively by these standards, the millions of blacks in Africa and the few of them who are educated are as much pariahs in that vast prison as the blacks and Mulattoes of San Domingo in the eighteenth century. The imperialists envisage an eternity of African exploitation: the African is backward, ignorant. . . . They dream dreams. .. . The Blacks of Africa are more advanced, nearer ready than were the slaves of San Domingo, (pages 375-76)
This was no Utopian vision. It was based ultimately on the facts of history and directly on the organized political activity which had started among a handful of Black men but which would subsequently become encompassed in the political motion of the African peoples themselves. It was the very apotheosis of realization for the "small political organization."
There was something more specific, however, in the strategic political conclusion of the book. Few people today realize how significant that conclusion was at the time. Within the specific context of the changing balance of political forces in the world at the time, the International African Service Bureau was debating the political course which the African struggle would follow. The Black Jacobins was probably the most important factor in the evolution of the strategic perspective of the group, which became the premise that armed struggle would be the form of the African revolution. "But when did property ever listen to reason except when cowed by violence?" (page 70) The historical parallel to the reciprocal unfolding of the French and Haitian Revolutions at the end of the eighteenth century would be the interpenetration of proletarian revolution in the West and colonial revolution in Africa and the East, each encompassed within a specific dynamic of social movement but each also clearing the way for the other. Here is how James himself analyzes the elements on which the strategic perspective in 1938-39 for the African revolution rested, and we will have to be pardoned for quoting at such length:
But the book had other premises, raising urgent questions which had to be radically revised and are by no means settled. It took armed rebellion for granted as the only road to metropolitan and colonial freedom and from this premise flowed certain theoretical perspectives. The San Domingo Revolution had been directly inspired by the French Revolution, had developed side by side with it, and had had an enormous influence upon the course of that Revolution. The book therefore constantly implied that the African revolution would be similarly contingent upon the socialist revolution in Europe. It did not envisage an independent movement of Africans as being able to succeed in face of the enormous military power that a stable imperialist government would be able to bring to bear. This has been apparently contradicted by the experience of the Gold Coast Revolution, but conversely reinforced during the same period by the experience of the revolt in Kenya. If a British Government had been unable to send assistance to Kenya, or a revolutionary British Government had been in a position where the success of the Kenya revolt against the counterrevolution was necessary for its own preservation (that is what happened during the French Revolution) the revolt in Kenya, though made by the same people, Would have been entirely different. It would have had socialist allies and would have been made under socialist slogans, representatives of the British Government would have taken part in it and guided it, and the result, particularly in the modern world, would have been an African Government under which (of this there can be no question to any who have studied the San Domingo Revolution) white settlers, once they saw no other way out, would have fraternised, male and female, with General Kimathi, General China and their associates and successors. This has happened before and will happen again, and we must not be too surprised if from limbo querulous voices assure us that this too was the settled policy of His Majesty's Government. Whatever the future of tropical Africa will be, one thing is certain, that it will not be what the Colonial Powers are trying to make of it. It will be violent and strange, with the most abrupt and unpredictable changes in economic relations, race relations, territorial boundaries and everything else.
The work of the Bureau continued all through the war and in 1945 there came a sharp break with the theory outlined above. The Bureau changed its position from the achievement of independence by armed rebellion to the achievement of independence by non-violent mass action. But to say that is one thing, to carry it out in practice is another. The problem has never been treated fully even in the publications of the Bureau, and it is time that this was done. . . .
. . . In a colonial country and especially in tropical Africa, these moves and counter-moves (when the revolution and counter-revolution are approaching an ultimate crisis) are impossible. The colonial government in power can call upon the power of the metropolitan country as soon as it is aware of any dangerous movement against it. To stake independence upon armed rebellion was therefore to have as a precondition the collapse or military paralysis of the metropolitan government. It was in other words to place the initiative for African struggle upon the European proletariat. In the Black Jacobins are the words: "Let the blacks but hear from Europe the slogans of Revolution, and the Internationale, in the same concrete manner that the slaves of San Domingo heard Liberty and Equality and the Marseillaise, and from the mass uprising will emerge the Toussaints, the Christophes, and the Dessalines. They will hear." Those were exactly the ideas that we had had.
. . . But by the end of the war the proletariat of Britain and France had not spoken. Imperialism still held sway at home. Only a radical alteration in theory could form a basis for action. The perspective of armed rebellion was abandoned (though held in reserve) and nonviolent mass action was substituted.
The Black Jacobins can finally be said to have revolutionized historical writing in ways dealing both with conception and method. Firstly, it initiated the destruction of the accepted scholarship in regard to the Abolition question in England. The death blow to the view that abolition sprang from pure and philanthropic motives came with Eric Williams's Capitalism and Slavery (1949), which was originally presented as a doctoral thesis at Oxford, but which Williams himself admitted was first outlined in Chapter II of James's book, The Owners. This in no way detracts from the eloquent brilliance of Williams's work in demolishing, according to James, that "venal race of scholars, profiteering panderers to national vanity, (who) have conspired to obscure the truth about abolition." (page 51) It is now part of common historical knowledge that first the slave trade, and later slavery itself, were abolished in the West Indian islands for reasons that were largely economic, namely, that African slavery, once the gigantic source of capital accumulation in Europe, and without which the Industrial Revolution could not have taken place at the pace and in the form in which it did, was no longer profitable. Economic growth in Europe and its accompanying demands for free exchange of manufactured goods were at the root of slavery's liquidation. The force of "philanthropy" had meaning only in that context.
If that was a considerable breakthrough in the way of historical understanding which James's work made possible, the second excavation in historical conception achieved by The Black Jacobins has been even more significant. Put simply, historical analysis of the existence and nature of servile revolt took on completely new meaning. Taken together with his more schematic A History of Negro Revolt (1939), James's work laid the foundation for the later systematic analyses of slave and colonial resistances, as well as the factor of radical consciousness realized as self-activity in the life of the "inarticulate" slave and colonized person. Prior to James's two books there had been Norman Leys' tentative inquiry, Kenya (London, 1926), and George Padmore's The Life and Struggles of Negro Toilers (London, 1931). The work, however, which it most nearly resembles and in fact complements in a quite remarkable manner is W. E. B. DuBois's Black Reconstruction (1935). What both works demonstrated most notably was the essential role which Black emancipation played in effecting the course of these wider historical changes in which it was enmeshed.
But all this takes us much too wide afield. We should end simply by reiterating that C. L. R. James arrived in England in March 1932 and left for America in October 1938 — slightly more than six-and-a-half years, in which he added significantly to the emancipation and understanding of the human condition.
Robert A. Hill, a native West Indian, teaches Afro-American Studies at UCLA.
*James's World Revolution was the first available history of the Comintern, appearing one year before Borkenau's general history, The Communist International, London, 1938.[return to text]