Decolonizing revolution with C.L.R. James

or, What is to be done with Eurocentrism?

RP 199 () / Article

Time would pass, old empires would fall and new ones take their place, the relations of countries and 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. [1]

This statement from C.L.R. James’s classic book on cricket, Beyond a Boundary (1963), could be said to summarize his biographical trajectory. Like many other distinguished figures from the colonies, the Caribbean especially, James was a diasporic intellectual, in constant movement, from the margins to the centres of empires and back, travelling along the routes of the black Atlantic, from one pole to another: the West Indies, Europe, the United States and Africa. Furthermore, the above quotation also sums up James’s thought, with its repeated emphasis on ‘movement’, as exemplified in the musical metaphor he draws in his 1948 Notes on Dialectics with reference to Lenin: ‘I have long believed that a very great revolutionary is a great artist, and that he develops ideas, programmes, etc., as Beethoven develops a movement.’ [2]

The main concern of James’s theoretical and political practice is the movement of the masses and the movement of history, which for him are one and the same. The great revolutionary episodes (English Revolution, French Revolution, Russian Revolution), as the climax of class struggle, make history move. In this respect, the history of unremitting pan-African struggles, which James began to excavate in his seminal work on the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins (1938), [3] [ ]is an integral part of world-universal history, by no means something that stands apart from it. James, however, was always very careful not to subordinate these alleged ‘minor-minority’ struggles to the ‘major-majority’ struggles of the proletarian masses of Western countries. What he did was to rethink radically the relations between socialist ‘world revolution’ and the liberation of ‘oppressed nations’; the convergences and divergences, past and present, between struggles for emancipation ‘at the centre’ and anti-colonial/anti-racist revolts ‘at the margins’; and the complex connections and disconnections between the history of the West and the history of non-European societies in a global imperialist context.

Understanding James thus involves breaking with the double spontaneous assumption according to which his main theoretical intervention in the field of the theory and historiography of revolutions consisted in, on the one hand, importing ‘from outside’ anti-colonial/anti-racist issues into Marxist thought, conceived of as inherently confined within the borders of the Western-white world, and, on the other hand, grafting Marxist-socialist perspectives onto pan-African claims and struggles, deemed to tend naturally towards black nationalist particularism. Positively, understanding James implies analysing the variations he introduced into Marxist thought, ‘from within’, in order to incorporate the neglected histories and present battles black peoples were engaged in. James did not intend, as postcolonial scholars would put it, to provincialize Marxism, but rather, in Frantz Fanon’s terms in The Wretched of the Earth, to ‘stretch’ it in order to deprovincialize the non-European world. He strove to redraw the geography of struggles for emancipation, or, put another way, to decolonize revolution as a concept and an object of historical inquiry.

In 1980, The Times dubbed James ‘the black Plato of our generation’. It seems at first a very inaccurate designation, not only because James was a harsh critic of Plato, as the archetype of the ‘intellectual’, whose reflections are invariably based on the premiss that popular masses are unable to govern themselves, but also because this sobriquet, in which the comparison amounts to the greatest reward, reproduces the colonial-paternalist idea that the subjects of empire are condemned to comply with the model offered by their white ‘elders’, and cannot think of anything better than being ‘colour copies’ of the West’s major intellectual products. Regarding James, however, ‘black Plato’ has the merit of highlighting a constitutive ambivalence, which should not be overlooked, and deplored, as if it were a mere (negative) by-product of his British-imperial education in Trinidad: the result …