C. L. R. James and the Black Jacobins of Haiti
C. L. R. James was one of the twentieth century’s intellectual giants. During a life of intense political engagement, he wrote classic books about the struggle against slavery and the social history of sport, never flinching in his socialist commitment.
- Interview by
- Daniel Finn
C. L. R. James was one of the great political and intellectual figures of the twentieth century. Born in Trinidad, James spent much of his life in Britain and the United States. His long career as a writer and activist brought him into contact with everyone from Paul Robeson and Richard Wright to Eric Williams and Kwame Nkrumah.
James wrote several books, including his study of cricket, Beyond a Boundary, a pioneering exercise in the social history of sport. But he’s still best remembered for his classic history of the slave revolt in Haiti, The Black Jacobins, which opened up an entirely new field of study, showing the vital role that slaves had played in their own emancipation.
Paul Buhle was the founding editor of Radical America and the author of a pioneering biographical study, C. L. R. James: The Artist as Revolutionary, published shortly before James died in 1988.
This is an edited transcript from an episode of Jacobin’s Long Reads podcast. You can listen to the episode here.
What was the context of Trinidad and the British-ruled Caribbean into which James was born, and what was his own family background?
It was 1901 when he was born, and therefore a very colonial setting. There had been faint stirrings about nationalism in Trinidad, but not so much — more cultural than political, you might say, more through the carnival than political challenges. His father was a schoolteacher. His mother was a woman who had been to a Catholic school and was a great reader of novels of various kinds. He grew up with his father very much wanting this very bright son to be a successful lawyer, or a minor political official in the colony, or a doctor, or something else that would be as far as a jet-black, talented young fellow could go.
That was his background. According to the most famous stories, he rebelled against his schooling. Even though he was an outstanding student, he spent his time on the cricket field. He disappointed his parents terribly. At the same time, he graduated and began teaching. He became interested in teaching Trinidadian history to students and then was drawn into journalism. He began writing some cricket reportage — his very first writing.
He became convinced that “they are no better than we” — that is, white over black. He was asked by Captain Arthur Cipriani, a rising politician, to write about him and his movement. Cipriani challenged the existing political rule, not by asking for independence, but by asking for a greater sense of freedom. He first became the mayor of Port of Spain, Trinidad’s capital, and then a challenge to the larger system. Captain Cipriani had open rallies in Port of Spain, which were allowed by the colonial authorities.
James did begin to write about him — not very many times; James was not drawn into direct political action, giving speeches for Cipriani or any such thing. But he was trying to cast around and see what his political and cultural life was going to be. He fell in with a group of essentially brown-skinned intellectuals — some gay intellectuals among them, all male — and they published a couple of magazines that shocked the respectable classes with their discussion of sex and other such matters, like the slums and the life for women and so forth. You could say that he got as far as an ambitious young literary-minded person could possibly get in Trinidad at that time.
What was the significance of his move to Britain in the 1930s?
He said he was told, “You have gone as far as a black man can go.” That is to say, his friends who stayed and remained literary — although they didn’t really amount to very much, a novel or two — believed that he could get no further as a black man without leaving for England. But I think this was a bit of a memory lapse — a willed memory lapse — because the world of Trinidad was much too small for him. He departed for London under an unusual stipulation that the greatest of Trinidadian cricket figures, Learie Constantine, would invite him, pay for his way, and give him a place to stay. In return, James would essentially ghostwrite an autobiography of Constantine.
When James landed in Britain, he wrote a number of letters — small essays, really — back to a Trinidad newspaper. Those letters explained that he fell immediately into the Bloomsbury crowd and appeared at literary events. He startled people as this very handsome, jet-black young man who could speak with great knowledge and recite Shakespeare at a moment’s notice. As he said, he was taken up by beautiful, wealthy young women and spirited away in limousines.
In the meantime, he was playing cricket up north and he fell into a job writing for the Manchester Guardian. Almost immediately, within a year, he became an outstanding cricket reporter admired by all. He was preparing himself in a different fashion to become a cultural writer of note.
What contact did he have at that point with Pan-African political activists who were based in Britain?
One astonishing thing about his contacts is that several of the leading Pan-African figures were from the Anglophone West Indies, and the best-known figure, George Padmore, was someone he had actually known in his childhood in Trinidad. They swam in the Arima River together. Padmore was close to the Comintern and then broke with it to take an independent path toward West African struggles and anti-colonial struggles in general. Several other people were from similar backgrounds.
James became part of the League of Coloured Peoples, founded by a Jamaican in 1931. Then he became part of an organization to support Ethiopia: the International African Friends of Abyssinia. This was his route to meeting a wide spectrum of important people, including Krishna Menon, who were part of the anti-colonial struggle in London. He really had contacts everywhere from the West Indies to India. It was a small group, but a very potent one, and it placed him at the center of the growing Pan-African movement.
This became a defining purpose for his understanding of politics that differentiated him from the existing communist or Trotskyist movements. He wasn’t really able to be part of those things comfortably because they didn’t fully absorb or associate themselves with this anti-colonial movement. It also gave him a status within Britain that was quite unique.
The Independent Labour Party (ILP) had grown to a considerable significance in the mid-1930s because the Communist Party had disgraced itself by extreme sectarianism from the late 1920s onward. The Trotskyist movement was only a series of individuals — mostly intellectuals. It had little influence but managed to make Trotskyist positions known, especially within the ILP. James was able to navigate between taking part in the anti-colonial struggle on the one hand and becoming by far the most outstanding intellectual within this small Trotskyist movement on the other.
At the same time, he was beginning to write on Trinidadian independence. His work The Case for West-Indian Self Government was a little pamphlet about Trinidad and Captain Cipriani’s struggle. He began to assess the significance of the rise and fall of Marcus Garvey and the Garveyite movement in the United States — to understand it, not just as a crazed effort to bring African Americans back to Africa, but instead as having raised race awareness, in a way that race awareness had not been raised before, among thousands and thousands of Afro-Caribbeans and African Americans.
He was working with these movements and giving speeches in London and other places. He was a very charismatic speaker, who was able to draw crowds to him as an individual intellectual and as someone who could have something remarkable to say, regardless of the fact that British communists viewed him with anathema, since he had taken an anti-Stalinist perspective.
The Black Jacobins, the work by James for which he is still best known today, I believe, opened up an entirely new field of study when it appeared in 1938, decades before the work of Marxist historians like Edward Thompson or Christopher Hill. How did James come to write the book? And how would you compare it with two works that appeared in the same decade: Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution on the one hand, and Black Reconstruction in America by W. E. B. Du Bois on the other?
This story is a little complex, but I’ll try to simplify it. James got the idea to write this book into his mind. He said at different times that it was partly the inspiration of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, which he regarded as one of the greatest books that he’d ever read. But there was also another purpose, and that was most certainly his interest in anti-colonialism and specifically in the Haitian Revolution.
He wanted to show something that no one had shown before — that is, that the slaves had freed themselves. They hadn’t depended upon whites to free them in this great historic struggle, first of all. But secondly — and this is crucial — he wanted to show that they were not part of a distant, backward society.
The slaves, because of their forced placement within one of the most modern industries in the eighteenth-century world, the sugar plantation, had gained the skills and knowledge to work with each other, to create this wealth which built Europe’s greatest cities. They were not a backward people by virtue of the socialization of production, and here we come to the importance of Marx to James. Through their participation in the social relations of production, one worker with another, they were part of the modern world, and being an especially oppressed part of that world, they had successfully fought to free themselves.
I said that no one else had seen this. That’s not quite accurate, because W. E. B. Du Bois, while writing Black Reconstruction, which was published three years earlier, had seen the same thing in the American South. He perhaps exaggerated by referring to the slaves running away from plantations as a general strike of slaves. Actually, they left as soon as they had the opportunity when Union troops occupied regions of slavery during the Civil War. But he was coming to the same point that, given the opportunity, black people would free themselves.
The great significance of this was that James was reaching a conclusion that no one had come to before in the Marxist movement — not Lenin before his death, not Stalin, but also not Trotsky. His 1937 book, World Revolution, was already a deviation from Trotskyism as Trotsky explained it. James suggested that the peasants and workers of the non-white world were waiting for a signal from the workers of the West and a step toward socialism in the so-called advanced countries to throw off their colonial oppressors themselves and step into the modern world. But it was also vice versa: the workers of the Western world were ultimately dependent upon that uprising of peasants and others in the colonial Global South.
No one had really said this so clearly before. It was never previously believed within the field of Marxism, although black nationalists had suggested something along those lines. World Revolution was called in Britain “the Bible of Trotskyism” — though not by Trotsky. It was a giant step forward in suggesting what world revolution would need to be.
James spent time looking through the archives of the French Revolution, because he was convinced that the ordinary Jacobins in Paris, if they’d had the opportunity, would have happily supported the slaves in Haiti and their uprising, and that a moment had been reached in the late eighteenth century of genuine transracial worker solidarity. That is the conclusion that he was coming to in his work in the archives in Paris.
The publication of The Black Jacobins really established him as a highly respected writer, at least in the UK and the United States, where he received extremely good reviews from the London Times and the New York Times. He placed himself among the outstanding historians of something that had never been studied before in this way.
But the context wasn’t right for this book to change the field of history straight away. You could say, much like Du Bois and Black Reconstruction, it was twenty or thirty years too early for historians or the intellectual communities at large in the UK and the United States to absorb it into their world and reorganize British history or American history around these understandings.
How would you describe the legacy of that book over the long term?
The strange thing is that it fell into such obscurity. It was only the suggestion of an editor at Pantheon Books, André Schiffrin, that brought it back into print as a textbook, mainly for university classes, in the 1960s. The US civil rights movement had raised the question: what was the role of black people in the United States and the wider world? James seized on this opportunity: he rewrote a fair amount of the book, dropped a lot of the 1930s Marxist rhetoric from it, and added a new appendix on the importance of Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution.
The new edition appeared in 1963 and it was adopted by history classes in significant numbers — growing as the years went on. University classes were at an all-time peak with the vast expansion of universities and the tiny beginnings of something that could be called black history, so there was more and more of an audience for it.
I don’t think it had a splash in the political world yet, but it was now seen, alongside Du Bois’s, as a really important book for the story of people of color, in the New World especially. It has since assumed its status as a classic. People now talk about The Black Jacobins as an important historical book, but it was also a thesis about contemporary black politics.
Why did James relocate to the United States at the end of the 1930s? When he moved there, what did he have to say about racism and the African American freedom struggle?
It’s a very good question, because of the complexity of his relationships with Trotsky and Trotskyism. James P. Cannon, one of the founders of the Trotskyist movement in the United States, visited the UK in 1937. It planted the seed of the idea in James’s mind that he should leave the UK and come to the United States. Meanwhile, the Communist Party of Great Britain, which, as in the United States, had suffered so badly in disgrace from sectarianism, made a huge, sweeping comeback with the rise of the Popular Front.
The possibilities of Trotskyism being more than a small minority resisting this much larger movement had diminished enormously by 1937–38. The Trotskyist movement itself in the UK had diminished and fragmented very much. There was also little prospect of winning support for resisting the war effort in World War II, which James’s wing of Trotskyism believed in, when the UK faced the possibility of bombing and invasion.
He was already fascinated with American popular culture, but the United States now seemed much more inviting to him. He migrated under a temporary visa. He never secured citizenship, which later allowed the government to deport him in 1953. He engaged in a wide, sweeping lecture tour, as much as the Trotskyist movement could get audiences together. He was known almost immediately as this wonderfully handsome and charismatic lecturer, in an era when popular lectures on politics still drew large public audiences.
He also made a visit to Trotsky in exile in Mexico. From what we can understand, Trotsky was eager to meet him. He was uneasy, because James had posed some problems in World Revolution and other writings about whether the vanguard party had taken too much authority for itself, whether it was able to check its own limitations, even in the days of Lenin — this was not an idea that Trotsky received in much of a friendly way — and that perhaps Trotskyists would not play the key vanguard-party role, but some other role of being part of a larger revolutionary movement.
James also insisted that the black movement had an independent role to play. It did not need to be part of the Socialist or Communist parties — or whatever the left party was. It could maintain its own independence and make its own decisions. This was a shocking view within the field of Bolshevism, and one that Trotsky wasn’t entirely prepared to accept. On the other hand, James was such an outstanding figure, and Trotskyism had so few outstanding figures — none of color — that Trotsky took these ideas seriously and hoped that they would go somewhere through James and his influence.
He was in New York for most of the time, living in a district that was mixed race — an unusual district of Harlem. He made friends with people like the famous novelist Richard Wright. He continued touring and began writing furiously for the Trotskyist movement, and really did not publish another full book between World Revolution and The Black Jacobins, which appeared in 1937 and 1938 respectively, and Beyond a Boundary, which appeared in 1963. He gave his life over entirely to leading a revolutionary movement, even though that movement got smaller and smaller with the collapse of the US left following the Second World War and the increased pressure from all kinds of repressive agencies.
How did his expulsion from the United States in the 1950s by the immigration authorities affect James?
He desperately wanted to stay, and he petitioned some members of Congress. You could say that his book on Herman Melville was part of the appeal to stay — obviously one that was unsuccessful. There’s an anecdote of him asking Sir Anthony Eden if he could be persuaded to help James stay in the United States, with Eden replying that being deported to the UK should not be considered a form of punishment. It’s hard to say whether this anecdote can be documented or not — at least I could not document it.
Being expelled in 1953 threw him back upon himself, but it also gave him a different world. He travelled and lectured in various parts of the Anglophone Caribbean and was recognized as an outstanding intellectual in a world where there were few of those. From the 1930s, he had played a sort of mentor role for Kwame Nkrumah, who then rose to great historical significance with the struggle for the independence of Ghana. Even further back, when he was a teacher in Trinidad, one of his students was Eric Williams, who went on to write Capitalism and Slavery, and later became the leader of Trinidad.
James had contacts from the Caribbean to Africa — mostly at the top level, among the most famous intellectual and political leaders. But boy, talk about having the contacts! He could speak in parts of Britain and the West Indies, and he was even able to make an occasional tour in parts of Africa. He could impress his ideas upon people and carry on an intellectual life that was already shifting him from this idea of proletarian revolution with class as a central focus toward a rather different perspective, based on the opening of the colonial world toward revolutionary struggles.
He wouldn’t associate himself with those struggles that depended upon support from the Soviets. But he would find places that didn’t rely on the Soviets and were looking for a different path. He’d place himself as an advisor, or he’d have contacts, or he’d begin to provide cultural and philosophical lectures. People came to a public library in Trinidad in 1959 to hear a series of six lectures by him, which helped open them up to their own significance, to the fact that they had entered the world as modern individuals and were ready to assert their independence and their role in the world.
He had a group of no more than sixty or seventy people in the United States that underwent two or three significant splits and was reduced further and further down to a handful. (By that time, I was a member of the handful, more or less.) It then dissolved: his own political entities didn’t really play a big role after the mid 1950s. But he emerged as a black intellectual above all this.
In 1963, his book Beyond a Boundary provided a fascinating history of the rise of modern sport, and especially cricket — perhaps the best that had been written up to that time — connecting it with sports in antiquity and bringing it through to the color question. It was written, of course, with a stunning literary brilliance. It didn’t sell many copies — in fact, none of his books have sold many copies to this day, other than The Black Jacobins. But Beyond a Boundary gave him a significant reputation in different quarters. People on the street in the UK would say, “He’s that cricket man,” because when they started to televise test matches, sometimes he would come in as a commentator.
In London, he had an apartment that was a kind of salon. People would come in and talk with him — revolutionaries of different kinds, the young, rising West Indian leaders — and he was already ruminating on the opportunities to intervene, as well as staying in touch with an amazing array of people in countries across the world. You could say that he was preparing his role for the late 1960s. He was allowed to return to the United States in 1969. A group of students at Northwestern University had him invited, and he went on to stay intermittently in the United States for another decade.
He presented himself now to audiences as the voice of the Pan-African past. He was able to recuperate people such as W. E. B. Du Bois, whom he’d never placed so highly in the past because of his connections with the official communist movement. He was able to place Frantz Fanon as someone who was making a vital contribution to our understanding of psychology. He wowed audiences across the United States and other parts of the world, and landed himself back in Trinidad, Guyana, and Barbados, speaking to the rising tide of independence.
He always seemed a senior figure. He seemed to me at the age of sixty-nine to be very ancient and almost ashen-faced, but when he would rise to speak, blood would rush into his face. He would say, “I’m going to speak for 58 minutes,” and always stay precisely within the time limit he set for himself.
His second wife once remarked about his lecturing in Los Angeles in 1939 that with his first phrase, there was an explosion of the audience. I think she must have been exaggerating, but I do remember attending a couple of his lectures and there was an astonishing response, no doubt because he was speaking from this Pan-African past, but also because of his extraordinary eloquence. It was a bit like listening to E. P. Thompson, if I could make a comparison.
How did James perceive the Caribbean radical thinkers and activists who came after him, such as Walter Rodney, for example?
Walter Rodney was a disciple of his. He called himself that, although he was a little ambiguous, because he didn’t really want to be trapped in the role of disciple. But if you read How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Rodney was clearly following the lines of thought that James had set out. I was in touch with James after Walter Rodney’s assassination in 1980 and the overthrow of the government in Grenada with the landing of US Marines in 1983. These two events were so shocking because they marked the end of an age of the Caribbean left. Sad to say, the great tide had been turned back.
James greeted the assassination of Rodney with a tremendous sense of disaster, because he was so keen on the idea that an individual within the Caribbean could lead and bring an entire people behind him. Rodney seemed as if he was destined to do that in Guyana. James had warned him urgently not to return to Guyana, but brave and feckless Walter Rodney had gone back anyway.
Something else important had happened earlier in 1959 or 1960. James was called by Eric Williams, his former student, to become editor of the organ of the People’s National Movement. It was a vitally interesting newspaper that he used to educate widely, but also somewhat subtly to challenge the bureaucracy that was taking hold in Trinidad, to assert that ordinary people must rule this country that was moving toward independence, or else the project of independence and transformation was going to fail. Above all in Trinidad, this meant bringing black people and people of Indian descent together around one program.
James was viciously attacked from within the bureaucracy by people who were rising to various government positions. They didn’t want him to disrupt this change from white elites to black elites, if you could vulgarize the trend of things. Finally, Eric Williams made it clear to James that he must cease editing the paper, and he might as well leave the country, which is what he did with considerable sorrow, because he thought that he had been given a central position. Some people said it seemed as if number two was becoming number one, even though Eric Williams was an almost godlike figure to ordinary people in Trinidad.
James had around the same time been writing furious letters to Kwame Nkrumah, making the same point that it was the role of ordinary people in the struggle against the British and not the rising bureaucrats that would either make the revolution or lose it. But the division was clear. There was a new middle class that was taking over the civic roles of the departing colonists.
That new middle class was going to need to stop and repress the demands that were coming from below, or else it wouldn’t be able to achieve respectability in the world, given all the pressures from the former colonial power, and especially from the State Department and the CIA. Perhaps there really was no alternative, but for Nkrumah and Williams, the course they followed was to accept the reality of the bureaucracy and the nonrevolutionary transformation of the decolonizing process. To James, that was one of the great disappointments of his life.
What influence did James have on the new left-wing and anti-racist movements that were emerging in Europe and the United States from the late 1960s onward?
Since I was or thought of myself as being part of those movements, I have an intimate but also possibly a biased view. The difficulty of understanding this is that the rise and fall of the New Left happened very, very quickly — it wasn’t even a decade in length. The ideas that James presented, mainly in lectures, were absorbed by a rising number of people. Nineteen-seventy was the year when I brought out the first anthology of his writings as an expanded issue of my magazine, Radical America. It had eight thousand readers. But by the time they’d absorbed it, the antiwar movement was already in retreat. The vast demonstrations against the war climaxed in 1970–71, and with the end of the draft, they melted away.
There were revolutionary movements, strikes, and protests in many different places, from Portugal and Italy to Quebec. There was an extraordinary number of strikes in the United States, involving people of color and women, often in places where there hadn’t been strikes before, like the post office. There were challenges to the bureaucratic leadership of the unions. All these things were at a high tide from 1969 to 1972, but then they melted away.
The visions and lessons that James tried to teach didn’t fall upon deaf ears. We tried to carry it forward in my little magazine for a long time thereafter. But it was no longer possible for readers to take action in the ways that James had anticipated and hoped and proposed. By 1980, James had slipped into the role of the great background figure, the great scholar, the admired black revolutionary and visionary — much more of an item for the classroom, or an item for committed political radicals to read as background material, than anything more immediate.
It’s now more than three decades since your own book on James appeared as one of the pioneering works in the field. It’s also more than three decades since James himself died at the age of 88. How do you think his reputation has fared in both academic and political circles since then?
I want to begin with a footnote. There’s so much that’s not available to people who are in a shutdown situation, where they may not be able to get access to James’s work, so I just want to suggest something which is available online, which I edited, called C. L. R. James: His Life and Work. It appeared as issue number 12 of the journal called Urgent Tasks.
It contains essays, notes, and comments by his contemporaries, by fellow teachers, and by political activists. It will give you a nice wide view of what people at the time, coming out of the New Left, thought of him, and how they saw him in the West Indian context, as well as within their own North American or British contexts.
My view of the cultural studies of C. L. R. James is that they’ve often been very interesting, but we have existed within such a period of political stasis, in part of the Left at least. Only since the 2010s have Occupy, Black Lives Matter, or the challenges posed by Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn — just to mention a few things — given people a new beginning to an idea of a socialist movement and vision beyond the collapse of the Soviet Union, beyond the rise and fall of neoliberalism, and beyond the terrible stasis in the movements of people of color.
Because of this, the cultural studies materials prepared on James and the more academic work being done on him — which is very interesting, and potentially very valuable — have existed within this limited framework and without great political implications. But now things may change, and people who have been studying James for a long time, or young activists just beginning to study him, will be able to put his ideas much closer to practice than before. At least that’s what I hope for.