Against the Current, No. 90, January/February 2001
Stolen Vote, Wasted Votes
— The Editors
Race and Class: The Stolen Vote
— Malik Miah
Labor for Mumia vs. Reno's Justice
— Randy Christensen
Showdown for Mumia Abu-Jamal
— Steve Bloom
School Vouchers Scam Goes Down
— Louise Cooper
Confronting the School of Assassins
— Peter Olson
Living Wage Movement: An Update
— Stephanie Luce
South Africa's Political Change
— Patrick Bond
Idaho, Mountain Lions and a Rattlesnake Friend
— Hunter Gray
Ralph Nader and the Legacy of Revolt (Part 3)
— Walt Contreras Sheasby
The Rebel Girl: Supremes in the Bush
— Catherine Sameh
Random Shots: Annals of Combat
— R.F. Kampfer
Letter to the Editors
— Sidney J. Gluck
- Chapters in Black History
Remembering Dudley Randall
— Melba Joyce Boyd
Gwendolyn Brooks 1917-2000
— Tyrone Williams
C.L.R. James and Anti-/Postcolonialism
— Grant Farred
- Ten Years After Desert Storm
Honoring Our Gulf War Resisters
— Betsy Esch
Remembering the War and the Movement
— Peter Drucker
- Ravages of Corporate Free Trade
Metalclad vs. Mexico, Toxic Waste and NAFTA
— Gerard Greenfield
FTAA, The Hydra's New Head
— Martin Hart-Landsberg
- In Memoriam
— Tariq Ali; David Finkel
Rummaging amongst those old quotations the threads that connect up with the burning question of the present time. –Leon Trotsky, Permanent Revolution
C.L.R. JAMES’ PROCLAMATION in Beyond A Boundary (1963, a classic study of cricket and colonialism –ed.), after almost three decades of radical intellectual work, that “Thackeray, not Marx, bears the heaviest responsibility for me,”(1) is a sententious political statement. It abounds with meanings, standing at once as an alluring paradox and a striking truism.
But like most maxims, the Trinidadian James’ “preference” for “Thackeray” (literature over politics) is more memorable than it is philosophically or politically accurate. For this reason, the significance of Beyond A Boundary’s hyperbole resides as much in the entanglement of Karl Marx and William Thackeray as it does in its critical deception. The juxtaposition sets up a false opposition that overshadows the nuances of the exchange between the English novelist and the German philosopher in James’ work.
The Trinidadian’s phrasing belies a deeper, dialectical relationship between Thackeray and Marx in his writing. But precisely because of the rich ambivalence of James’ formulation, the paradox does have a certain resonance. After all, for a thinker who issues such a disclaimer about Marx, the Trinidadian was an intellectual deeply indebted to the socialist tradition.
The German philosopher undoubtedly, as James’ marxist writings in State Capitalism, World Revolution 1917-1936: The Rise and Fall of the Communist International, and Spheres of Existence attest, bore a substantial responsibility for James’ intellectual formation. Indeed, some Jamesian scholars might argue that Marx ranks as the Trinidadian’s singular philosophical influence.
Is this grand pronouncement in Beyond A Boundary, then, representative less of James’ immersion in Thackeray than an indicator of his proclivity for hubris? Is this bold claim merely harmless disingenuity, marking little more than the Trinidadian’s deep love for literature, momentarily obscuring the (enduring) centrality of Marx to James’ thinking? By giving precedence to Thackeray in Beyond A Boundary, is James not so much relegating Marx to secondary status as providing a map of his own intellectual trajectory?
The comparison between Marx and Thackeray in Beyond A Boundary, James’s most autobiographical work, returns the Trinidadian to that moment in the early 1930s when he first arrived in England. At that point James was driven more by his “creative” literary ambitions, his desire to be a novelist and a short story writer (which he had been in Port-of-Spain),(2) than a commitment to a left politics.
While James’ novelistic pretensions quickly waned, his career as a literary critic — as his writings on Shakespeare, Whitman, and Melville (the remarkable Renegades, Mariners, Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In bears articulate testimony to this) makes clear — would flourish alongside his philosophical explorations and political activism. And as the “Thackeray paradox” shows, his love for literature endured.
James’ hubris in Beyond A Boundary, however, does more than (superficially) subjugate Marx. The Trinidadian also obscures his “debt” to another radical thinker, Leon Trotsky, a marxist who figures as prominently as the German himself in James’ political career. The Russian marxist played a crucial role in the Trinidadian’s intellectual transformation, especially in the early years of James’ philosophical education.
As this essay will show, however, even after he became a marxist, Thackeray’s role in James’ intellectual life would not diminish. It would, instead, be recast. As James’ work in The Black Jacobins demonstrates, “Thackeray” represents not only the Trinidadian’s considerable passion for literature, but a critical process by which the Trinidadian read, engaged, and transformed Trotsky in his anti- and postcolonial critiques. It means a strategy (hermeneutic praxis) for interpreting texts, for reading historical moments, for interrogating ideological paradigms, and for creating dialogues between political and cultural artifacts and their producers.
However, because it is such an audacious(3), interrogative textual criticism it is also, like all hermeneutics, occasionally unable to produce a full or complete reading of the text it is examining. In James’ case it registers most pronouncedly as the inability to identify or critique the failings of what is labeled here the anti-/postcolonial. And more tellingly (and perhaps surprisingly), it is a form of critical engagement that is sometimes “blind” to its own perceptiveness. In this instance James’ reading is insufficiently aware of his capacity to generate prescient or “prophetic” insights.
This essay will focus on two modes of thinking and locales that are dialectically related: the presence and absence of anti-/postcolonialism in James’ work. Firstly, we examine the ways in which Trotskyism ideologically facilitated James’ thinking, especially the anti-imperialist and presciently postcolonial work that is The Black Jacobins. Produced during the peripatetic James’ first stay in England, 1932-38, this book will be read as an unprecedented commentary on both anti- and postcolonialism, political moments that are conventionally understood to be represent discrete formations.
Written in 1936, in a period conceived of as anti-colonial (which normally dates from Indian independence in 1947), The Black Jacobins is a reconstructive text that is simultaneously backward-looking and prescient, recuperating a largely forgotten black history and anticipating the “modern” Third World nation-state. This book dissolves the anti-/postcolonial distinction as much as it maps the trajectory from the colony of San Domingo to an independent Haiti.
James’ work recovers the history of the successful San Domingan slave revolt in the late-eighteenth century as both an anti-imperialist uprising and the founding of Haiti as a postcolonial nation. In this Jamesian text anti- and postcolonialism overlap, produce ideological slippage (it is difficult to keep the anticolonial and the postcolonial neatly separated), reinforce each other, and show how coterminous and indistinct these two modes were for the revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture and his sans culottes.
Secondly, this essay will explore how James’ tenure in the United States (from 1938 till his deportation in 1953) undermined and distorted his relationship to the anticolonial movement and the postcolonial predicament. As befits an intellectual given to deracination, the Trinidadian spent much of his life constantly moving back and forth between the Caribbean and Britain, the USA and Britain. This essay turns on those very deracinations because it explores the consequences of those relocations — from periphery to metropolis, from British to American metropolis — for James as an anti-/postcolonial intellectual.
Against the backdrop and the centrality of England to James’ radical thinking, the American period reveals itself as an especially uncertain moment for the Trinidadian’s anticolonial and his (prescient) postcolonial work. Those fifteen years, I will argue, represent an anti-/ postcolonial “gap” in James’ work, a silence that cannot be offset by how intellectually rich, educative and valuable the American years were. This is a period that seriously impeded James’ forays into the anti- and postcolonial question.
Trotskyist Premises of The Black Jacobins
While James had been opposed to British colonialism in his native Port-of-Spain, it was not until he arrived in England in 1932 and started working with various constituencies of the metropolitan political left that he was first able to give full or coherent voice to his critiques of British imperialism.
Sponsored by the talented Trinidadian cricketer, Learie Constantine, James came to England in 1932 as a Caribbean man of letters. James was, in that “Thackeray” moment, only an embryonic radical. Encouraged by Constantine, who was then playing cricket professionally for Nelson in the Lancashire league, James became active in the far-left Trotskyist movement.
In Britain James soon joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP) where he made his first serious acquaintance with Marx, Lenin and Trotsky. James’ transformation from aspiring Trinidadian novelist into Pan-Africanist would have been more protracted had he not read Trotsky’s A History of the Russian Revolution.
With the ILP discussions he participated in providing a kind of on-the-spot philosophical training, the Trinidadian set about constructing his career as an anti-colonial intellectual. His reading of Trotsky’s A History of the Russian Revolution and Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West would provide the historiographical models for his own work on recuperating radical narratives.
James’ migration to England, however, gave him more than access to (mainly) white metropolitan marxists. Relocating to Britain internationalized his perspective on the anticolonial struggle, in significant measure because of his involvement with the International African Service Bureau (IASB), an organization founded (by James, among others) in London 1935 by black leftists opposed to Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia.
The IASB included in its ranks future postcolonial statesmen Kwame Nkrumah and Jomo Kenyatta, the activist Amy Garvey, and James’ childhood friend, the black Trinidadian communist George Padmore.
Inspired by the racially-charged, anti-imperialist politics of the IASB and armed with the newly acquired philosophical nuances of Trotsky’s work as a template, James started the project of recuperating the San Domingan revolt led by Toussaint L’Ouverture at the end of the eighteenth century. In conceiving The Black Jacobins as an anti-/postcolonial text, James was able to reconcile two of his predominant strains of thought. As Kent Worcester argues:
“Revolutionary socialism may have seem as far removed from Pan-Africanism, but for James the two were complementary. Trotskyism anticipated the emergence of new revolutionary movements in the coming period, and it placed a critical emphasis on the importance of linking and extending struggles across national borders. Permanent revolution . . . arranged world historical forces in such a way as to allow for the complete and secure abolition of colonialism and imperialism.”(4)
James himself echoes the importance of Trotsky’s writing in his posthumously published American Civilization: “The History of the Russian Revolution,” he remembers, “gave me a sense of historical movement: the relation of historical periods to one another.”(5) Trotsky’s trope of historical mobility, of the ebb and flow of political events recurs with greater poetic self-reflection in Beyond A Boundary:
“Times would pass, old empires would fall and new ones take their place, the relations of countries and the relations of class had to change, before I discovered that it is not the quality of goods and utility which matter, but movement; not where you are or what you have, but whre you have come from, where you are going and the rate at which you are getting there.”(6)
Trotsky’s notion of “movement” is clearly a metaphor which resonated with James, providing him with a way of thinking about his place in the world; Beyond A Boundary marks not only the fine tuning and amplification of Trotsky’s philosophy, but the deep personalization of that metaphor.
The Trinidadian’s reading of A History of the Russian Revolution signals the beginning of an intense, and intensely dialectic, intellectual relationship between the Trinidadian and the Russian. Not only did James meet Trotsky in Mexico after he came to the United States, but an even stronger epistemological claim can be made for the Russian’s impact: James produced World Revolution in 1937 as his equivalent of Permanent Revolution.
Both these are highly polemical texts in defense of revolution. Trotsky’s is rooted in his concern about the “viability” (and even the vulnerability) of the Bolshevik success in 1917, while James is preoccupied with the failure to consolidate the radical energies of the Russian Revolution (locally and) internationally. These two thinkers are committed to staking out their ideological positions, political affinities, and strategies for organization — or realignments — in their respective circles.
What further links these texts are the extent to which James and Trotsky’s works share a strong anti-Stalinism — and Stalinist tendencies of any stripe. Trotsky’s indictment of the second Secretary-General is most grandiloquent it in his evaluation of the post-Lenin Soviet Union. “History does not proceed in a straight line,” Trotsky laments, “It has temporarily run into Stalin’s blind alleys.”(7)
James’ relationship to the Russian enabled him to appropriate Trotsky’s tropes in The Black Jacobins. In his work on Toussaint James is, as it were, reading Trotsky to read Toussaint; or, reading Toussaint off of Trotsky. In deconstructive terms, James engages in the act of creative metareading. Working anti- and non-chronologically (both against and without regard for temporality), he uses the Russian Revolution as a “retrospective” critical tool with which to produce a reading of the San Domingan slave revolt.
Within this paradigm, The Black Jacobins can be rendered as a metatext (a narrative about Haiti) produced out an “originary” text (Trotsky’s account of the Russian Revolution) that chronologically preceded the conceptual “founding” text (A History of the Russian Revolution).
History works here with a distinct antilinearity. In the moment of textual conception, time does not (transiently) matter and the past is recuperated and re-presented through the marxist “present” in order to conceive of a (postcolonial) future. Because of its complicated “temporality” and its groundbreaking historical recovery, The Black Jacobins stands as a profoundly “original” political artifact.
It is in The Black Jacobins that Trotsky and Thackeray are reconciled: James’ literary method, his nuanced, deftly politicized reading of fiction, reveals itself as a political practice. The literary hermeneutics is most evident in James’ ability to show how apparently disparate, chronologically discrete “historical periods,” “relate” to — are in conversation with and dependent upon — each other.
It is this praxis that enables him to complicate and enrich The Black Jacobins’ key nodal point: this text reveals how historically loaded the anti-/postcolonial conjuncture is, how the anti-/postcolonial moments need to be thought together, how profoundly connected these two modes are and the extent to which impact and inform each other.
In this text, as I have argued more extensively elsewhere,(8) James operates dialogically: he demonstrates a series of political and philosophical exchanges, across the boundaries of time and space. He shows how the San Domingan revolt derived from the French Revolution; he links Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia [Ethiopia],(9) which originally inspired The Black Jacobins, to the British, French, and Spanish attack on the newly independent Haiti; and James is able to envisage the “(post)modern” postcolonial nation-state because of Toussaint’s nineteenth-century triumph.
Through using Trotsky’s work as a critical praxis, as an expansive and dialectical sense of historiography, James is able to represent the turn of the (nineteenth) century Caribbean uprising as both symptomatic of a black appropriation of European modernity and as a forerunner of the mid-twentieth century anti-colonial resistance.
The exiled Russian gave the deracinated Trinidadian the theoretical tools with which to think about historical moments and movements across the centuries. Trotsky (and Thackeray) enable James to “read” history: to interpret and interrogate the anti-/postcolonial past, and then to engage in historical prognostication. Because of this reading praxis, James is able to make historical “predictions:” He is able to make claims about the anti-/postcolonial future based on his analysis of the past.
He is able to imagine how the Gold Coast might become Ghana, how British imperial rule might be replaced by an independent Nkrumah government. James’ hermeneutics enable him to identify in Toussaint’s slave rebellion of the late-1790s the antecedents of an anti-/postcolonialism that could, almost a hundred and fifty years later, speak dynamically to African and Caribbean communities struggling in the mid-twentieth century against British, French, Portuguese and Belgian imperialism. Read critically, the San Domingan/Haitian past could inspire, shape, and inform the “Third World” future; Toussaint and Nkrumah and Kenyatta are dialogically linked.
The Black Jacobins, however, recovers more than the history of peripheral, Third World independence and the sans culottes’ unique agency. The book also contains a prescience that goes largely unheeded. Having read the nineteenth-century text of anti-/postcolonialism so adroitly, should James not have been more alert to the possibility of (post-) modern postcolonial failure, violence, and socioeconomic upheaval? Should the Trinidadian radical not have understood that Dessalines’ ascension to power (a black general who held dictatorial power after the defeat of the French –ed.) represented more than the failure of Toussaint’s modernity?
In its conclusion, The Black Jacobins marked the inauguration of the postcolonial state as a repressive apparatus, a condition foreshadowed by Toussaint’s “extradition” to France. Had James been more conscious of Thackeray in that moment, he would have grasped that the literal death of the “anti-/postcolonial father” symbolized the metaphoric death(s) of the postcolonial project. As in Toussaint’s case, the San Domingan/sans culottes success would be confronted with the Haitian/Dessalines “failure.”
Toussaint’s idiosyncratic modernity, his black Caribbean “double consciousness,” found itself impotent in the face of Dessalines’ act of “renaming.” The transformation of “San Domingo” into “Haiti” constitutes, in the postcolonial world, the first instance of what Homi Bhabha calls the “empty promises of nationalist renaming.”(10) Toussaint, the charismatic, illiterate slave who transformed himself into an exponent of the founding principles of the French Revolution, the black revolutionary who believed that Haitian independence was the equivalent of the democratic French state, proved no match for Dessalines’ expedient <”nationalism” — in the most racially essentialist sense of the term.
Succeeding Toussaint, Dessalines abandoned the Enlightenment precepts which girded the San Domingan revolt. He installed in its stead a narrow conception of Haitian identity. The most virulent expression of this new sense of national(ist), black self could be located in Dessalines’ determination to exterminate the white plantocracy.
The Black Jacobins represents in and through Dessalines an antimodernist nationalist. Reading Dessalines’ anti-Enlightenment as a national(ist) discourse, James could see how this rhetoric made Toussaint’s adherence to modernity seem responsible for more than his own incarceration and death in the far-off metropolis.
The Black Jacobins also, more disturbingly, shows how the deposed leader’s faith in modernity is implicated in — if it is not directly responsible for — the autocratic Dessalines’ ascension to power. From this historical locale, Dessalines’ assuming power signals more than the replacement of Toussaint. To proffer the long-range view, in that succession were ideologically spawned the atrocities that Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier would commit against the Haitian people.
Dessalines’ campaigns against the white plantocracy marks, in this regard, nothing so much as the inauguration of a system of leadership that would be practiced, with brutality and impunity, against internal black opposition. And no one needs reminding that Dessalines introduced a style of postcolonial rule that has, in the last half century, become all too familiar in the Caribbean, Africa, Latin America and Asia.
Through Toussaint and Dessalines James became acquainted with postcolonial failure, with revolutions that not only went wrong, but that had devastating long lasting consequences for the black populace of Haiti — so much so that centuries later the sans culottes still found themselves subjected to dictatorial forces, not unlike those deployed by Dessalines against the plantocracy.
Because of how the “Dessalines” model has proliferated in the postcolonial world, The Black Jacobins is, its prescience not withstanding, symptomatic of a much deeper failure. James’ study of the Haitian revolt ascribed an unprecedented agency to the anticolonial subject, but it did not think beyond the conception of the postcolonial state. James read Toussaint’s inability to produce a democratic Haitian society as the consequence of personal shortcomings (especially his “misguided faith” in the project of modernity), not as representative of larger structural failure.
Because James’ work was conceived in an anticolonial milieu, because he did not comprehend the historical resonance of Dessalines as metaphor, as portentous historical signifier, he could not produce the kind of rendering of postcolonialism that his own reading made possible. In his postcolonial critiques, the Trinidadian’s “literary hermeneutics” exceed his political prognostications; James’ Thackeray was, paradoxically, ahead of his Marx in terms of understanding what the postcolonial paradigm would deliver — or fail to deliver, as the case might be.
The Trinidadian represents a singular “blindness” since both his historical research on the San Domingan revolt, and the lessons offered by Trotsky’s A History of the Russian Revolution, should have warned him about the postcolonial future that was Dessalines. Sometimes the “relations” between “historical movements” is not the mobility of events or practices, but their replication and their stasis. In Marx’s terms, this marks the infinite repetition of the “Haitian” as on-going postcolonial tragedy.
James’ prescience, his reservations, his “prophetic” anticipations that are so sententious in The Black Jacobins did not find more resonant voice because he did not comprehend the textuality of history. The Trinidadian remained, in this instance, a radical thinker curiously blind to his own hermeneutical insights. He did not understand how history could be read, how he had read history. What James did not fully grasp, in conceiving his study of Toussaint, was the conjuncture between (his) anti-/postcolonial theory and practice.
Addressing the question of praxis from a different locale, Stuart Hall conceives of “theory as a set of contested, localized, conjunctural knowledges which have to be debated in a dialogical way . . . as a practice which always thinks about its intervention in a world in which it would make some difference, in which it would have some effect.”(11) James was unable to recognize the kinds of “intervention” The Black Jacobins could and did make in the anti-/postcolonial world; he did not see what kind of “effects” his own text would have.
Producing valuable “knowledge” both within and for a key historical conjuncture, James failed to grasp the kind of “dialogic” impact The Black Jacobins could have. Succinctly phrased, the Trinidadian did not understand the prophetic import, the temporal transportability, or the postcolonial usability of his own work. James undervalued his contribution to postcolonial theory. And he did not recognize (much as the conflict between Toussaint and Dessalines should have alerted him) the costs of ignoring the lessons of postcolonial Haiti.
Shortly after Nkrumah came to office in Ghana,(12) soon after Eric Williams became the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, James would find himself struggling against their Dessalines-like behavior. Their familiarity should not have surprised him.
The American Years
But if James is insufficiently attentive to the prescience of his postcolonial theorizations in The Black Jacobins, if his reading praxis exceeds his political insight in those moments, it is distinctly different from the problematic that would characterize his political work in the USA. What had been at the core of his work in England, James’ investment in the downfall of European imperialists and his philosophical contribution to the anticolonial struggle in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, was displaced by his relocation to America.
During the “American years,” it could be argued, there was a dramatic — and unexpected — shift in James’ work. Between the moment of arrival (1938) and the moment of McCarthyite deportation (1953), the question of race and imperialism, always so central to his work, was displaced from the global to the seductive locality of the United States. In this period, James largely ignored the struggles of the international, colonized black proletariat and focused his attention on the condition of African Americans.
Nowhere is this shift in political viewpoint registered more clearly than in James’ hyperbolic remarks in American Civilization, “The Negro question in the United States is the No. 1 minority problem in the modern world.”(13) But this is more than Jamesian hubris, a trait with which we are already familiar. It is at once a historic omission and a critical maneuver that turns out to be normative for James in the “American years.”
James, after all, was making this claim about “Negro primacy” in 1950, a key conjuncture in anti- and postcolonial history. The century’s midpoint was a moment when India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka had just gained independence, and countless struggles were being waged throughout sub-Saharan Africa; moreover, the signal anti- and postcolonial event that was Bandung (the founding conference of the Non-Aligned Movement, 1956 –ed.) was barely half dozen years away.
Location, in American Civilization, is everything: James privileged the “Negro” problem because he wrote from within U.S. society, for an American audience, with a blinkered view of the world and his own place in — and relation to — the struggles that were being conducted in the very causes he had earlier championed and to which he had given historic articulation.
As a result of this over investment in America, James’ work in this period shows itself guilty of key epistemological omissions. Engaging as American Civilization is, James discussion of the “Negro” question demonstrates the limiting effects of (his) locale. The Trinidadian is admiring of the African American struggle, but he never sketches (though he may have sensed) how the anticolonial resistance in Africa and the Caribbean would be impacted by the Civil Rights campaigns in the United States. Nor did he explore how the Civil Rights and the Black Power movement in America would later draw inspiration from Africa’s anticolonial fighters.
At the moment that the anticolonial struggle was expanding, internationalizing itself (especially culturally, with the Black Panthers adopting what has been labeled “mau mau chic” as their political uniform), James could not identify the “relations” of movements to each other; even when they were moving in his directions; even when they were movements he had helped to propel into political motion.
The “local” that America came to represent in the fifteen years James spent in this country, however, did more than contract James’ view of the world and narrow the focus of his struggles. In his attempts to “nativize Marxism” or “Americanize Bolshevism,” as Andrew Ross argues, James was blinded to the imperialist predilections and practices of his “hosts.”
“It is quite bewildering,” Ross writes, “to find no mention of U.S. imperialism in a book by someone considered to be among the most acute analysts of colonialism. One would think that a half-century (to take the `official’ period only, from Cuban independence in 1898) of Washington’s well-documented shenanigans in Latin America, Central America, and in James’ own backyard, the Caribbean, would have warranted some discussion.”(14)
In Trotsky’s terms, we might say that James had lost the “threads” of his argument. More trenchantly phrased, James was, from his peripatetic location in the United States, unable to address the “burning questions” of his time; he misrecognized the crucial interrogations.
Colloquially phrased, James had lost the anti- colonial plot. He was unable to “connect” the “No. 1 minority problem in the modern world” with other black problems in other places, especially those he was so familiar with intellectually and personally. His decade and a half in the United States represents James’ only extended silence on the postcolonial struggle.
During the “American years” James was singularly unable to set Mississippi laborers in conversation with the San Domingan slaves, to understand how these constituencies were — following Marx, Lenin and Trotsky — part of the same struggle, fighting toward the same ends, to redress similar injustices, structural inequities, and repressions.
It is in this mode that James becomes symptomatic of the condition of postcolonial theory. The “American years” are, like postcolonial theory, guilty of a willful blindness, of an inability to read the landscape on which the struggles are being conducted, a failure to both understand the (often arduous) conditions under which history(ies) are being made and the tools (popular culture, new social movements) used to craft those practices and articulate those narratives.
Confronted with the manifest (and multiple) failures of the “Third World” nation-state, postcolonial theory continues to be marked by a refusal to interrogate its own efficaciousness, to reflect upon its failings, upon how it might renovate itself. Like James, postcolonialism is a paradigm that too frequently constricts its focus, occasionally capable of retooling its vocabulary but singularly unable to rethink its premises.
Postcolonial theory can see what it has done, but it cannot see what it has not done. It does not ask whether its theoretical viability derives in part from its ideological bankruptcy. While the latter charge could never be leveled against James, he pays a real political price for being too deeply embedded in his locale. Because of this, James does not make the link between the United States’ history of slavery, racism, and colonialism and the “number one” minority problem in the world. The latter, after all, is nothing but a direct consequence of the former.
Despite this reduced political vision, or perhaps because of it, James did a great deal of valuable radical work while in the United States. During those fifteen years he undertook a rethinking of marxism with Trotsky’s ex-secretary, Raya Duneyevskaya, in the evocatively named “Johnson-Forest Tendency,” and produced innovative writings on American popular culture and literature.
Especially groundbreaking is his work in Renegades, Mariners, Castaways, his astute literary analysis of Melville’s Moby Dick. James’ rendering of the text combines, sometimes more elegantly than others, a critique of nineteenth-century American capitalism (the whaling industry) with nuanced close reading of the book. Yet even here, James is guilty of an “anticolonial” omission.
It is surprising that, despite the several invitations offered by Melville’s book, most notably through the figure of Queequeg, James largely fails to bring the anti- and the postcolonial paradigm into play in his account of American society. Sensitive to the United States’ proudly independent yet deeply racist history, James failed to identify imperialist exploitation and racism as the twin pillars of America’s “democratic, colonial and nationalist, project. U.S. democracy and imperialism, so bound up in “Moby Dick,” remained discrete philosophical entities for the American James.
Through the absence of these critical gestures James becomes both a Thackeray admirer and a latter-day Toussaint. At this moment in the “American years” James is at once the Leavisite literary critic (as the politically aware but subtle Scrutiny reader) and the “Victorian without the rebel seed;” in the latter instance, he shows himself to be more a product of a nineteenth century sensibility than an anticolonial or postcolonial “rebel.” Most telling about this, ironically, is that James would been a rebel with a good cause.
The paradox of American Civilization is that it demonstrates the consequences of James’ immersion in U.S. cultural and political life. The Trinidadian could agilely conceive of and admire the democratic impulses that girded Whitman’s verse; James could certainly recognize the vitality of American culture, especially of the popular variety.
It was a dynamism that James found especially vibrant alongside the stasis of its European counterpart. Armed with his hermeneutic, he could astutely craft a class critique of Melville’s Moby Dick and appreciate the democratic vision that animated and sustained Whitman in lines such as “I sit and look upon all the sorrows of the world/and upon all oppression and shame.”(15)
But always, however, at an anti-/postcolonial cost: James lost sight of the “world” beyond Whitman’s poetic vision. The Trinidadian could not, in part because of his limited engagement with the anti- and the postcolonial perspective in the United States, make the connection between American racism and the country’s imperialist predilections.
He was, perhaps, in American Civilization, too fully claimed by the American bard Whitman and the “world” the poet imagined. Like them, James was, preoccupied with “pursuit of” and the potential for happiness, and happy social relations, that he derived from Whitman and other American writers. This is a Jamesian phenomenon present in much of his work but preoccupies him especially in American Civilization where he dedicates an entire chapter to “The Struggle for Happiness.”
However, James was too incisive a thinker to be permanently blinded to the wider ramifications of the postcolonial condition. He returned to the question with eloquence, subtlety and passion in Beyond A Boundary. Without the “American years,” the centrality of popular culture that marks Beyond A Boundary is inconceivable. But as Mariners, Renegades, Castaways shows, James did not so much leave as he was thrust out of America, deported by the McCarthyite authorities and returned, against his will, back into the anti- and the postcolonial experience.
In what might be termed the Jamesian postcolonial interruption, that protracted moment between the Trinidadian’s 1938 departure from England and his return to his Port-of-Spain in the mid-1950s to assist with the campaign for Caribbean independence, Third World sovereignty had assumed a permanent visage on the world stage. And James, without missing an ideological beat (and perhaps even philosophically better qualified to address the issues than when he had originally left the Caribbean), returned to that struggle with gusto.
From the moment of his re-entry into Caribbean political life, he participated in a range of struggles against colonialism, neoimperialism, and Soviet-style repression. As befits his peripatetic trajectory, much of that work would be done from a metropolitan locale which was, more often than not, London.
The noteworthy exception to this mode of political intervention was James’ involvement in the movement for Trinidadian independence. He assisted, even though it proved to be an object first-hand lesson in neocolonialism, Eric Williams’ bid for sovereignty. James was also active in antiapartheid campaigns and, already an octogenarian, he publicly supported the Solidarity campaign in Poland. As recently as the early 1980s he was stumping for radical change in Eastern Europe.
If James experienced a momentary lapse of anti-/postcolonial reason or memory in that fifteen-year span, consumed as he was with America’s unique civilization and its exceptionalism, it was a mode of politics which he rapidly unlearned and abandoned. Still, valuable as those fifteen years in America were, they reveal a telling blindspot in the thinking of a signal anti-/postcolonial figure.
Whether or not Thackeray bore the “heaviest responsibility” for James at the end of the American period attains, within his ouevre, a poignant significance. Aware that a narrow political appeal would not prevent his deportation in 1953, James produced Mariners, Renegades and Castaways. However, it is precisely because the McCarthyite authorities knew of James’ public association with Marx and Trotsky that “Thackeray” could not rescue him. The Trinidadian and his texts (those innumerable Trotskyist tracts) had, as it were, been read, his history uncovered, his future (actions) anticipated, his impact on American workers and their Trotskyite activists assessed by the reactionaries.
In that rare instance, Marx was uncoupled from Thackeray and the German philosopher was fully, and solely, “responsible” for James (i.e. his plight). But it was still, tellingly, Thackeray to whom James turned to offer his reading of events.
It did not prevent his most traumatic deracination, but Mariners provides its own counter-narrative to the McCarthyites: It is text in which both Thackeray and Marx reside, a reflective work in which one enables the other, in which James renders a literary reading of (American) politics.
- C.L.R. James, Beyond A Boundary, New York: Pantheon Books, 1983.
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- In this intellectual “formation,” James produced a novel, Minty Alley, and a number of short stories, of which “Triumph” and “La Divina Pastora” are the most notable. See The C.L.R. James Reader, edited by Anna Grimshaw (Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers, 1992) for the short stories.
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- I have borrowed the concept of “audacity” from Alan Wald’s presentation “Trotsky and the angel of history: the audacity of the `American’ left,” delivered at the conference on “Explorations In The History of U.S. Trotskyism,” New York University, September 2000.
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- Kent Worcester, C.L.R. James: A Political Biography (State University of New York Press, 1996) 41.
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- C.L.R. James, American Civilization (Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers, 1993) 297.
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- James, Beyond A Boundary.
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- Leon Trotsky, Permanent Revolution, 224.
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- See “First Stop Port-au-Prince: Mapping Postcolonial Africa Through Toussaint L’Ouverture and his Black Jacobins,” The Politics of Culture in the Shadow of Capital, edited by David Lloyd and Lisa Lowe (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997). See also the Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s discussion of this issue in Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), especially the chapter “The Dialectics of Colonial Sovereignty.”
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- James first explored the project in his essay “Abyssinia and the Imperialists,” The Keys, Volume 3, Number 1.
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- Homi Bhabha, “Postcolonial Authority and Postmodern Guilt,” Cultural Studies, edited by Larry Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula Treichler (New York: Routledge, 1992) 61.
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- Stuart Hall, “Cultural Studies and Its Theoretical Legacies,” Cultural Studies, 286.
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- See James’ critique of Nkrumah in his work Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution (London: Allison and Busby Limited, 1977) especially the chapter “The Slippery Descent.”
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- James, American Civilization, 201.
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- Andrew Ross, “Civilization in One Country: The American James,” Rethinking C.L.R. James, edited by Grant Farred (Cambridge: Basil Blackwell Publishers, 1996) 80.
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- As quoted in American Civilization, 54.
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ATC 90, January-April 2001