Tag Archives: Black Jacobins

CLR James at 112

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CLR JAMES jacket

If the historian of slavery, British and Caribbean political activist, and one-time crickter CLR James (1901-1989) was still alive, he might set out his vision for the world through some compelling, broad-brush explanation of the state of the worldwide austerity project and of the limits it had reached through the opposing force of popular protest, whether in Turkey, Egypt or the US. It was equally his style to begin with something different, more intimate, a memory of a time long past.

CLR James began his visionary book Beyond a Boundary with a recollection, as a child, of having watched through the window of his family home, situated beside the ground of Tunapuna Cricket Club, as the team’s star batsman Arthur Jones emerged to applause, struck the ball hard, and was caught in the deep, before returning to the pavilion humbled, his supporters downcast. Even James as a child was overcome with despair. Why had this small incident cast him down so low?

This was James’ answer: “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.”

Six years ago, when I published my biography of CLR James which is now being published for the first time this month as an e-book by HopeRoad, I stated that it was my intention to persuade Marxists of the joys of cricket and followers of cricket of the calibre of James and James’ Marxism.

Events in the last few weeks suggest an unwelcome symmetry. The cricket has become more brutal since then with captains threatening to break the arms of the opposing team’s bowlers and batsmen returning home scarred. On the left too, we have had our brutes, and we struggle to disassociate ourselves from them. Perhaps on both sides of the equation we could do with a period of reorientation, a reminder of the best about ourselves, and of why we do the things that we love

James’ musings on Arthur Jones are as good a place as any to begin. “The relations of countries had to change”. James’ other great book, The Black Jacobins rescued from posterity’s condescension the story of the Haitian Slave Uprising and the part played in it by Toussaint L’Ouverture, showing that the slave trade was not brought to an end through the goodwill of William Wilberforce or any other Parliamentarian but as a result of a life-and-death struggle on the part of the slaves themselves.

“The relations of classes”: in James’ contemporary account the moment which made him a Marxist was travelling to England, to act as a ghost-writer for the great Caribbean all-rounder Learie Constantine who was then working as the club professional for the Lancashire club side Nelson.

James’ arrival coincided with a lockout by the owners of the town’s cinema. “The Nelson operators were paid at this time around 45 shillings a week, and the owners of the theatres decided to reduce their salaries. What followed was a boycott by the town’s public, who refused to consent to any lowering of pay … The whole town of Nelson, so to speak, went on strike. They would not go to the cinema. The pickets were putout in order to turn back those who tried to go. For days the cinemas played to empty benches. In a town of forty thousand people you could find sometimes no more than half a dozen in the theatres. The company went bankrupt and had to leave. Whereupon local people took over and the theatres again began to be filled.”

To his then lover Constance Webb James confessed his pleasure at hearing the story and his identification with the workers of Nelson: “I was thrilled to the bone.”

“Old empires would fall”. This was the immediate context to Beyond a Boundary, the independence of India and of the former European possessions all over Africa and across the world. More than two decades earlier James had helped to found the International African Friends of Ethiopia, a campaign against Mussolini’s colonial war, which had brought together such young activists as George Padmore and Jomo Kenyatta, who by the 1960s had become respectively (Padmore) the leading writer of African independence and a hero to the revolutionary left in South Africa and (Kenyatta) the first Prime Minister of Kenya following decolonisation.

In his memoir, James sought to show that the cricketing rise of the West Indies was the product as much of Politics and of History as of the talents of the individual cricketers; and he made a case for absolute human liberation, rooted in such unlikely supports as the moral code of the English public schools, the literary culture of the Victorians, and the succession by which a team game designed for the inhabitants of small, pre-industrial towns had become the property of the insurgent Caribbean.

Even if our public schools are more venal, and our literature barer than it was, even if sport is more widespread and shallower than ever, James principle of movement remains good. It is not what you came from or have but where you are going that counts.

CLR James on how to rewrite the Black Jacobins

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CLR JAMES jacket

My thanks to Ravi Malhotra for sending me a copy the journal Small Axe (no. 8, 2000), containing three talks James gave on The Black Jacobins. Delivered in 1971 to the Institute of the Black World in Atlanta, the first was a biographical retrospective on the book, and the second a comparison with WEB Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction in America, which had covered some of the same themes, and was published just a couple of years earlier, albeit of course DuBois’ immediate subject was the rise and defeat of a post-revolutionary order 80 years later within the Southern States of the US after the Civil War.

The talk which interested me the most was the third, “How I Would Re-Write The Black Jacobins”. Now, every writer, the further they get from publishing a book, will have changes to make to it. If you are, like James, writing history, then others will inevitably approach the same documents and find new sources to better contextualise them. If you are writing politics, as you age and mellow, or find new reasons to be angry, inevitably you will want to reconsider earlier formulations.

Retrospective correction need not be an improvement. Engels’ 1895 introduction to Marx’s Class Struggles in France before partially disavowed their generation’s focus on street-fighting in favour of reform through the ballot box, comparing the inevitable rise of the SPD to that of Christianity centuries before. Generations of Marxists since 1917 have disagreed with him.

But James in his seventies, unusually for an older writer looking back, was thinking through ways in which he could rewrite The Black Jacobins to the left. He had described slavery through the eyes of sympathetic, affluent observers. “Not any long, no, I would want to say what we had to say about how we were treated, and I know that information exists.” In France, he found a black aristocrat and colonist Carteau warning that the mood had turned decisively against the aristocracy of the skin, “I would not write that today”, “I would find – and I know they are there if you look hard enough – the actual statements where the rank and file in France and the ordinary people are saying what they think about slavery.”

The “we” in these passages (“how we were treated”) are the black slaves of St Dominique, and the “we” is equally the black audience of CLR James speaking in Atlanta in 1971.

Immediately afterwards, he qualified these thoughts, saying that he would also say more about the revolutionary process in France. James distanced himself from a section of The Black Jacobins, during which he had described how during the Days of 31 May and 2 June 1793, the Girondins had been driven out of the Convention. With some care, he explained, this was quite inadequate. He showed, from a perspective of fascination with the involvement of the masses in the making of a democratic revolution, that the impetus for the change came not from the top but from hundreds of thousands of Parisians had compelled the leaders of the revolution to take action, and reconstitute the Convention, enabling the abolition of slavery which was to follow the year after.

The rank-and-file was never constituted in James’ mind only out of those oppressed on grounds of race, but comprised equally the poor and the workers of all colours. In thinking of the working class as a unified force comprising of every race; he never forgot to think of the particular oppression of those who suffered racism.

James described the intense debates which took place within the French revolution, and he insisted that at their centre was not a debate between two types of revolutionary leader, but the debate “in the stores and the little workshops and the dark streets of old Paris”. Next he showed how the revolutionary leaders of San Domingo had not been the first to come to the fore in demanding abolition, but the initiative had been taken (in the words of one French soldier Pamphile de Lacroix) by “obscure creatures for the greater part personal enemies of the black generals”.

“They were obscure in Watts, they were obscure in Detroit”, James interjected. If he had to write the book now, he continued, most of his research from the very beginning would have been directed to finding who these “creatures”, the local advocates of the San Domingo uprising, its cadre, had been.

In 1971 James was setting out a writer’s project for a world in which the number of revolutions was increasing, as was their social content, whereas our own times are more equivocal. And yet there is something heartening – and contemporary – about a way of writing in which the focus is constantly, urgently, and ever more deeply, on the process of revolution itself.

For those who are interested in more about James, my book CLR James; Cricket’s Philosopher King, has was re-published this month as an e-book by HopeRoad