Beyond Postcolonial Theory: The Mass Line in C. L. R. James’s Works


One of the many facets of the career of Mzee C. L. R. James is precisely the awareness that African freedom will not be won without building on the positive elements in the history of Mankind.

–Walter Rodney
C. L. R. James is a great West Indian of complex spirit…a unique Marxist thinker whose dialectic is attuned, it seems to me, to necessity for individual originality as much as it is involved in analyses of historical process in the life of the people or the body-politic.

–Wilson Harris

Migrating from the academic periphery to the center, the current orthodoxy of postcolonial studies has advanced to the point at which certain doctrines concerning hybridity, syncretism, ambivalence, and so on, mimic ironically what they are supposed to denounce: the master discourses of hegemonic Europe and North America. To rectify this tendency, the authors of the influential textbook The Empire Writes Back proclaim that imperial suppressions work “through as well as upon individuals and societies” and transcend “the egregious classification of ‘First’ and ‘Third’ World,” thus claiming all space/time as its field of investigation. In The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, the same authors–Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin–proceed to revise the old “civilizing mission” of the West by mandating the desideratum of concentrating on lineages. Consequently, the study of settler colony cultures becomes paradigmatic: “Settler colonies, precisely because their filiative metaphors of connection problematise the idea of resistance as a simple binarism, articulate the ambivalent, complex and processual nature of all imperial relations” (1995: 3-4). 1 Following the poststructuralist tenets of Derrida, Foucault, and Lyotard, the discursive
practices of the colonizer are assumed to limit opposition peremptorily so that all resistance is fated to be complicit in domination, and all we can hope for is what postcolonial guru Homi Bhabha (1995) calls the “Third Space of enunciation,” the “in-between” of Derrida’s ecriture, of translation and interstitial negotiation, the “discontinuous intertextual temporality of cultural difference.” 2
I want to argue here that to the disjuncture between postcolonial undecidability, ethnic/nationalist essentialism, and what Paul Gilroy (1992) hypothesizes as a “black Atlantic” transcendence of boundaries can be counterposed the practice of the diasporic thinker C.L.R. James. His is neither a third way nor a reconciliation of opposites. His body of work illustrates how the political and artistic engagements of a decolonizing subject can refunction the master discourse of “dialectical materialism” without being complicit in restoring or recuperating domination. Such a discourse (the legacy of the European Enlightenment from Spinoza and Hegel to Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky) is not just enunciated by the subaltern but remolded to speak to/about circumstances and protagonists beyond those addressed by its originary theoreticians. What James accomplished is not just the invention of a counterdiscourse, a dialogic performance, suitable for “flexible” accumulation. It is a reaffirmation of the theme of “universality” against Cold War bipolarity and the pervasive fragmentation and reification of life in late capitalism. In the wake of the demise of Soviet “state capitalism” and globalized capitalism’s commodification of the whole planet (Magdoff 1992), James’s reconstruction of the materialist dialectic valorizes three motifs in his analysis of culture and society: contradiction as the basis of historical motion, the agency of the masses as creative and transformative force, and the practice of freedom as the embodiment of universality. Of these three, the agency of the masses and how it negates the need for mediation (by the party, bureaucrats, etc.) becomes pivotal to James’s cultural politics. It informs the narrative of complex dynamic forces in The Black Jacobins (1938). It enables James to avoid the perils of economism, class reductionism, voluntarism/sectarianism, and empirical determinism when he reflects on the Cold War conjuncture in the posthumously published American Civilization (1995).
The question of mass agency is linked to a controlling principle that governs James’s project of subverting state capitalism whether Stalinist or liberal: the centrality of movement in everything, in particular the dialectical transition from the old to the new. Transcontinental imperialism cannot be overcome without grasping motion in space and time. Disjunctions or distances in space becomes intelligible when the process of becoming (the ec-stases of human temporality) is reinscribed in the historicist organon that James distills in a sentence: “We can orient for the future only by comprehension of the present in the light of the past” (1994: 168). It took him almost half a century to realize this diasporic orientation in his life and thought, 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” (Paget and Buhle 1992: 39).

Before examining this principle of becoming and the themes of universality and contradiction in James’s texts, a biographical parenthesis may be useful. A product of British Caribbean colonial education, James’s love of English literature and his devotion to cricket as an art combined with his involvement in Trinidad’s organized labor movement. His first book, The Life of Captain Cipriani (1932), also laid claim to the foundations of West Indian nationalism in the interwar period. When he moved in 1932 to England, he was exposed to the Trotskyist movement and became an independent socialist critical of Stalisnism and the Comintern, as shown in his book World Revolution (1938). In essence, his critique of authoritarian forms of rule centered on the notion of a vanguard party that would substitute for the revolutionary creative energies of the people and of the popular forces of the left around the world. What complicates James’s Trotskyism is his pan-Africanism: his collaboration with George Padmore, Paul Robeson, and the Guyanese activist Ras Makonnen linked him to a historical process begun by W.E.B.DuBois and the Pan-African Congress and by Marcus Garvey; through this James exerted influence on Jomo Kenyatta and Kwame Nkrumah. James’s play Toussaint L’Ouverture was sponsored by the League for the Protection of Ethiopia.
Transported to the metropolis, the West Indian colonial subject discovers the African subtext in the palimpsest of world proletarian revolution. James’s book The Black Jacobins (1938) demonstrates his historical-materialist breadth of vision by connecting the French Revolution and the slave uprising in Haiti with the history of the Central African peoples on which the Atlantic slave trade depended. The Trotskyist concept of Bonapartism is applied to L’Ouverture, according to Stuart Hall, so that the Haitian revolution is read “as a mass uprising in which the leader became trapped in bureaucracy and was slowly transformed into a self-effacing dictator who capitulated, contained, and defused the popular revolution” (1992: 9). Hall’s description is not entirely correct; the Haitian masses completed the war of independence by destroying all the whites in the island.3
Imprisoned in Ellis Island at the height of McCarthyism in 1953, James completed his study of Herman Melville, Mariners, Renegades and Castaways. He read Moby Dick as an allegory of power relations, and expounded on how the ship symbolized the social relations of production at a certain period of U.S. history. Like his later work Beyond a Boundary, where cricket assumes the status of an emblematic game in which nature is reshaped into an dramatic artifice and given historical substance by the anti-imperialist struggle, Mariners can be read as a postcolonial discourse in which complicity and resistance dovetail. On the other hand, James’s obsessive concern with the tension between leadership, intellectuals, and masses (between Ahab, Ishmael, and the crew of the Pequod) derives from his preoccupation with historical motion, universality, and contradiction. In his engagement with American popular culture, with sports, carnival and West Indian politics, James applied a totalizing intellect to discern how a cultural practice crystallized the manifold historical forces at work in any given period. Whether it was the rise of the bourgeoisie during Shakespeare’s time, or the emergence of new productive forces at the moment when Melville and Whitman wrote or when Picasso painted Guernica; or the appearance of new mobilized energies of whole peoples, as in Haiti or the Gold Coast of Africa, James had an intuitive sense of the triangular play between historical moment, masses, and artist/intellectual. One might say that he privileged the totality of the revolutionary process of change, the sublation of the old into the new. He valued above all the resourceful, spontaneous, and creative force of the masses, the political energies of the working people, of a collective power mobilized during periods of crisis–this, I think, is the kernel of James’s dialectical materialism. Was this simply appropriated from the Hegelian-Marxist tradition? Is the privileging of mass agency (reminiscent of Rosa Luxemburg’s critique of centralized, bureaucratic leadership) a mere abrogation of Hegelian statism and vulgar Marxist technicist instrumentalism?

The Incarnation of Dialectics

Such questions can be understood better if we see their rearticulation in James’s magisterial review of world history in the 1947 essay, “Dialectical Materialism and the Fate of Humanity,” and its foregrounding of the telos of universality. Here James rearticulates Hegelianized Marxian themes toward what I would call a “mass line” orientation, which would later on find its historical crucible and incarnation in the 1962 discourse, “From Toussaint L’Ouverture to Fidel Castro.”
Echoing the Communist Manifesto, the 1947 essay begins with the collapse of capitalist civilization and the bankruptcy of bourgeois thought, humanity finally freed from illusions and faced now with “the real conditions of life.” Not only do Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia personify barbarism, but so do the victorious Allies presumably safeguarding the legacy of Western civilization. Dialectics enables James to grasp the fundamental contradiction between the abundant “possibilities of living” and the increasing “terror of mass annihilation” with the onset of the Cold War. Illustrating the law of the change from quantity to quality, James evokes the antithesis to counterrevolutionary barbarism: “the readiness for sacrifice, the democratic instincts and creative power of the great masses of the people” (1992: 159). Philosophy has not only become worldly but the world faced by either barbarism or socialism has become philosophical–that is, humanity posits freedom and happiness as conceivable only in the integrity of its struggle to transcend its subjection to nature and achieve a truly concrete universality. Such universality is prefigured in Marx’s notion of “species-being” in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844.
James reviews the worldwide failure to realize the potential of “species-being” from the time of Christianity to the Protestant Reformation. He holds that the dialectic of concrete and abstract embedded in the logical principle of universality has been short-circuited by Hegel’s idea of “mediation.” These mediations are symptoms of the failure to grasp truth as the whole: not only in human actions but also in people’s needs and aspirations. It was Marx who succeeded in theorizing absence and negativity by a historical-materialist method, that is, by resolving the problem of mediation with the intervention of praxis. For Marx, James asserts, “these concrete revolutionary stages are the work of the great masses of the people forever seeking the concretion of universality as the development of the productive forces creates the objective circumstances and the subjective desires which move them” (1992: 166).
Productive forces–are we then caught in a productivist trope or paradigm? No, because James reinscribes development within the orbit of social praxis moving between abstract possibility and concrete necessity. In tracing the development of Western civilization from primitive Christianity through Renaissance humanism to the rise of merchant capitalism, he focuses on slave revolts, peasant insurrections, the agitation of free workers in the medieval guilds, all of which culminated in the establishment of humanism and the national state of the absolute monarchy: “mediations of the mass proletarian desire for universality no longer in heaven but on earth.” This triumph of bourgeois liberalism, however, only sharpened the contradictions in the “mass quest for universality in action and in life,” for James “the moving force of history” (1992: 170). Discerning the contradiction between abstract and concrete in the English Civil War and the French Revolution, James underscores the rupture that suspends the need for mediation (the vanguard party, elite, charismatic intellectuals): “If out of the individual’s responsibility for his own salvation, there had leapt democracy, out of his political freedom, there leapt communism” (1992: 171).
The last mediation to be surpassed is the Hegelian State, Weberian bureaucracy, and the illusion of pluralist/liberal representative democracy under the aegis of capital. James exposes here Hegel’s limitations and the teleological idealism of Absolute Spirit. He opts for Marx’s mode of conceptualizing the “objective movement” in the process of production, an approach that is not “productivist” in the positivistic sense but one that coincides with “the quest for universality in the need for the free and full development of all the inherent and acquired characteristics of the individual in productive and intellectual labour.” Such a process of socialized labor would also abolish the fateful division between manual and intellectual labor, the theoretical foundation of postcolonial notions of interjacency, hybridity, etc. James is uncompromising in affirming that “the quest for universality, embodied in the masses, constituting the great mass of the nation, forbids any mediation” (1992: 173-74). Does this then imply that the subject can no longer be viewed as an effect of difference, whether linguistic or ontological?
Difference as contradiction still exists amid globalization, but the point is to rearticulate it within a differentiated concrete totality. James cites a passage from Marx and Engels’s The German Ideology, written a hundred years ago: “Only with this universal development of productive forces is a universal intercourse between men established which produces in all nations simultaneously the phenomenon of the ‘propertyless’ mass (universal competition), makes each nation dependent on the revolutions of the others, and finally has put world-historical, empirically universal individuals in place of local ones” (1992: 179). If revolutionary politics, for James, requires linking the “needs of the objective situation” with the state of development of the masses, what is needed to renew the “vast wreck of the modern world” is the “total mobilization of all forces in society.”
Facing the vast wreckage of imperialism fifteen years after, James, in “From Toussaint to Fidel Castro,” pursues the antinomy between concrete universality and its geopolitical mediations in the specific region of the Caribbean.4 Here Castro’s revolution epitomizes the “ultimate stage of a Caribbean quest for national identity” (1992: 296). The two poles of the antithesis in Caribbean history, the sugar plantation and Negro slavery, become figures in a constellation (to use Walter Benjamin’s term) for the traditional colonial order and for modernity respectively. The Haitian revolution was a mediation whose ambivalence disappeared in 1914 when the U.S. invasion ushered in the need for “Negritude,” a moment in the quest for universality. The rediscovery of Vodun in Haiti marked Negritude as a peculiar West Indian contribution, one supplemented by the invention of Cubanidad after the Platt Amendment subordinated Cuba to U.S. supremacy. In the interwar period, James presents four figures whose mediations embodied the struggle of the West Indian masses for independence: Marcus Garvey, George Padmore, Aime Cesaire, and Arthur Cipriani. It was Cesaire’s poem Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (1939) that exploded the axiom of linear, uniform evolution and introduced the dialectical leap: “that salvation for the West Indies lies in Africa, the original home and ancestry of the West Indian people” (1992: 302).5 Marx’s vision of the beginning of the “real history of humanity” is expressed in Cesaire as the convergence of African and Western worlds and the past and future of mankind, this convergence springing from (in James’s words) “the self-generated and independent being and motion” of the Africans themselves.
While James credits “Negritude” as the key mediation between Africa and the West Indian masses, Africa itself (contingently personified in the persons of Nkrumah, Kenyatta, Lumumba, Nyerere, and others) becomes integrated into West Indian life through the vehicle of mass communication: “There was therefore in West Indian society an inherent antagonism between the consciousness of the black masses and the reality of their lives, inherent in that it was constantly produced and reproduced not by agitators but by the very conditions of the society itself. It is the modern media of mass communication which have made essence into existence” (1992: 307). In effect, it is finance capitalism and the world market that provide the conditions of possibility for the West Indian national community to emerge, for West Indian artists like George Lamming and Wilson Harris to accept “complete responsibility for the West Indies.” James concludes by celebrating popular culture as the incarnation of the new things. In James’s planetary view, West Indians, emerging from “the pass and fell incensed points/Of mighty opposites” that define the Cold War, will contribute to the comity of nations: “In dance, in the innovation in musical instruments, in popular ballad singing unrivalled anywhere in the world, the mass of the people are not seeking a national identity, they are expressing one” (1992: 314). By counterpointing Western imperial barbarism with the rebellious subjectivity of the colonies in Africa and the Caribbean, James rediscovers the germinal Marxist concept of the “people” immanent in “empirically universal individuals.”
Contrary to Sylvia Wynter’s claim that James’s poiesis is exhaustively distilled by a multicultural Caliban who rejects the nationalitarian paradigm or nation model, James himself posits the historical specificity of West Indian revolutions (symbolized by Toussaint, Castro, the struggle against the Chaguaramas U.S. base in Trinidad) as necessary for comprehending the notion of universality. I would argue that the articulation of West Indian identity with global capitalism–eloquently enunciated in the 1966 lecture “The Making of the Caribbean People”–is the move James makes to recover the national-popular (to borrow Gramsci’s terminology) from its subsumption in elite vanguardism and the putative “labor-centric categories of orthodox Marxism.”6 But to delegitimate capital accumulation and its privileging of instrumental rationality over the autonomy of the body, we need to inquire not only into disciplinary regimes of power/knowledge but also more crucially into commodity-fetishism and the ideological apparatus of reification and postcolonial mystification. I think it is untenable to ascribe to James the epistemological presuppositions of Foucault and poststructuralist thought in general. Bourgeois power based on consumption and circulation of goods doesn’t spring primarily from the head/body opposition, just as the tension between the categories of race and class cannot be so easily dissolved by the mediations of jazz, calypso, and the reggae of Rastafarianism. Mass consumerism cannot so facilely displace the labor-centered paradigm Wynter rejects, despite the consensus on the protean virtues of James’s intelligence and the “pluridefined social totem pole” of Trinidad.
Engaging with Heideggerian deconstruction and the translations of alterity in response to the normative texts of Eurocentric “Orientalism,” critics like Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak, and their followers all privilege the peculiar intimacy between colonizer and colonized. It is instructive to counterpose James’s unabashed totalizing of ethnic difference and contingent diversity immanent in his historiographical practice. I do not mean by this the counterdiscourse of “marvellous realism” (originally broached by the Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier as “real maravilloso” in El Reine de este Mundo) proposed by Jacques Stephen Alexis, Michael Dash, and others, or the creolized differend of Commonwealth artists. Rather, the deconstruction of European master-narratives is performed through shifting the concern on limits–how human freedom in making history is “limited by the necessities of environment and conjuncture of circumstances.”

Triangulating New Worlds

At this juncture, I would like to call attention to an interview of James in the mid-seventies in which the crucial themes of mass agency and universality are staged conjuncturally. James the historian conceived of his role as studying the struggle of classes (a political, not an economistic, category), which is indivisible with the mass movements–“the emotions, activities, and experiences of the great mass of the population”–from an international perspective. Just as the sliding of signifiers cannot go on forever, the power of the individual, no matter how great, is strictly limited. The Black Jacobins opened the field of inquiry into the subsumption of individuals into race/class within imperialism. James’s point of departure in analyzing the Haitian revolution was his belief that “the center of the Black revolution was Africa, not the Caribbean” (1983: 267). A certain “native” intransigence saved James from succumbing to the temptation of “parliamentarism”; his association with George Padmore and his activities in the International African Service Bureau enabled him to make connections with African nationalists. Anti-imperialist solidarity allowed him to appreciate Cesaire’s “Negritude” as “not only a revolt against assimilation, but a poetical assertion of an African civilization” (1983: 270), analogous to the emancipatory projects of Marcus Garvey and Frantz Fanon.
What James stresses in the African context is not the antiracist or separatist cultural nationalism of the natives but rather the way British capitalism introduced slavery in the sugar plantations and how it brought its own “gravediggers” into its heartland. He insists that it is not economic relations that generate social movements but “the relations between classes,” so that West Indians living in Britain attack bourgeois society not because they are West Indians but because this particular society “trained them to act in the most advanced possible way.” In short, black people in the imperialist metropole have “succeeded in posing the question of the revolution” (1983: 272-73). James can unreservedly take this stance because of his conviction that the Haitian Revolution played a “decisive” role in the destruction of mercantilism and the abolition of the capitalist slave trade. He compares his task of demonstrating the role blacks played in the creation of modern Europe with DuBois’ endeavor to show how black people helped create modern America. In prophesying that capitalism was coming to an end, James might have exceeded the limits of his vocation as historian.
But I think the lesson he was trying to communicate is that the postcolonial strategy of deconstructing subjectivity concedes too much to the schematism of ideological texts and neglects the dynamics of transition whose understanding hinges on an analytic method that he derives from Marx’s Capital: “We learned that when something new takes place, if you want to understand it, you must begin from the highest peak of the previous form” (1983: 271). I think this presupposes again the problem of working through and beyond mediations in order to grasp the imperative of universality. This is the methodological axiom underlying James’s prolegomenon to his study of American civilization, the 1944 essay entitled “The American People in ‘One World’: An Essay in Dialectical Materialism.”
Is James guilty of a populist/demagogic fetishizing of the masses and thus instigating a cult of anarchic spontaneity? I do not think so. In The Black Jacobins, James describes the “remarkable liveliness of intellect and vivacity of spirit” that characterized the slaves in the eighteenth century. But without the leadership of those “who have been able to profit by the cultural advantages of the system” (such as Toussaint, Christophe, Dessalines), their revolt would have suffered the same fate as the Mackandal rebellion and other aborted uprisings. James analyzes not so much the economic status of slaves and plantation aristocrats but rather the changing alignment and disposition of various forces in Haiti at the time before the outbreak of the French Revolution. What he was unfolding was a plot of education in which the slaves learned “how liberty and equality were won or lost” (1963: 82) through mistakes, failures, and the ineluctable pressure of circumstances. James takes into account not just the racial conflicts but the specific maneuvers in which participants registered the limits and possibilities of their actions: “Political treachery is not a monopoly of the white race, and this abominable betrayal so soon after the insurrections shows that political leadership is a matter of programme, strategy and tactics, and not the colour of those who lead it” (1963: 106). Overall James charted the oscillating, complex interactions between leaders and masses, between black slaves and mulattos and their French masters, between the colonial administrators and the bureaucrats in Paris; this triangulation becomes the midwife to the birth of the people, the praxis of universality. What I want to highlight here is James’s all-sided, tactfully calculated, dramatic representation of Toussaint’s character, its weakness and strength, in Chapter XI of The Black Jacobins. The class or socioeconomic determinants of Toussaint’s personality are drawn with nuanced deliberation, taking care neither to glorify nor understate. After examining Toussaint’s correspondence, James offers his judgment: Toussaint’s “vision of precisely what is required is unerring, his taste is faultless, and the constantly varying approach is always suffused with revolutionary passion, a large humanity and a never-failing distinction” (1963: 253). But this seemingly static portrait and attributes are then set into motion when Toussaint makes the wrong judgment to execute Moise, his nephew and leader of several insurrections, for his sympathy with the black slaves in the North Province. Toussaint’s rationale then was to assure the French plantatocracy and Bonaparte that he would keep the blacks and mulattos in line. James sharpens the contrast between Moise and Toussaint by transcribing their voices. Moise first:

Whatever my old uncle may do, I cannot bring myself to be the executioner of my colour. It is always in the interests of the metropolis that he scolds me; but these interests are those of the whites, and I shall only love them when they have given me back the eye that they made me lose in battle. (1963: 275)

Toussaint replies to a notable creole of San Domingo:

I took up arms for the freedom of my colour, which France alone proclaimed, but which she has no right to nullify. Our liberty is no longer in her hands: it is in our own. We will defend it or perish. (1963: 281)

James notes the “strange duality” starkly displayed here, the loyalty to France coexisting with the assertion of autonomy and self-sufficiency–an emblem of the law of “uneven and combined development.”
But in the following remarks, we see James again grappling with the drive for universality and how the strategy for national liberation of the colonized has to somehow mediate between class, ethnicity (emergent nationality), and race. James praises Toussaint’s long-range perspective: he is “one of those few men for whom power is a means to an end, the development of civilization, the betterment of his fellow creatures,” a power committed to realizing the full potential of species-being. And yet his disregard of the masses and their level of consciousness, his authoritarian and aristocratic habitus, his failure to critique the abstract universality of the ideals of the French bourgeois revolution, his naivete about Napoleon–all constitute a flaw not tragic enough but still lethal in its consequence:

[Toussaint] could not admit to himself and to his people that it was easier to find decency, gratitude, justice, and humanity in a cage of starving tigers than in the councils of imperialism…. It was in method, and not in principle, that Toussaint failed. The race question is subsidiary to the class question in politics, and to think of imperialism in terms of race is disastrous. But to neglect the racial factor as merely incidental is an error only less grave than to make it fundamental (1963: 282-83)

But the irony is that in the last chapter of The Black Jacobins, entitled “The War of Independence,” the error became Toussaint’s grave. This statement of Toussaint’s habit from hindsight becomes double-edged: “in the hour of danger Toussaint, uninstructed as he was, could find the language and accent of Diderot, Rousseau and Raynal, of Mirabeau, Robespierre and Danton” (1963: 198). That constituted both his virtue and his blindness–his blindness to what was emergent, growing, fighting to be born. Only by seizing race, nationality, and class as “unity of opposites” and rallying the masses of black people (including the mulattos) against the slaveowners and the French Empire could Dessalines and Christophe succeed in liberating the country. And for that it was necessary that Toussaint, the hybrid transcultural mediation, be removed from the scene.
At this juncture, we see that the allegory of The Black Jacobins functions as the residual subtext of both the two aforementioned essays whose purpose is to show the quest for universality immanent in historical experience. Within James’s Marxist framework, “universality” can be concretized only in communism won by a permanent world revolution. While it is true that James (like most postcolonial intellectuals) worked within the Western cultural orbit and expressed the adversarial consciousness of subjugated people of color, it is not quite correct to say, as Edward Said does, that James unqualifiedly identified Europe as his own world, even if James himself stated that “fundamentally we are a people whose literacy and aesthetic past is rooted in Western European civilization” (quoted in Said 1993: 248). James precisely urged their antinomic conjunction; the symbiosis or synergesis of the West Indian and European was, for James, always fraught and contentious, without any guaranteed closure. And contrary to Said’s allegation that James “saw the central pattern of politics and history in linear terms” (253), one has to emphasize the interruptions and returns, a syncopation of unpredictable breaks that precisely rendered unnecessary the mediations by enigmatic, free-floating signifiers or the iron cage of administrators.
A turning point in James’s cultural politics occurred when he broke away from the mainstream American Trotskyist movement in 1950 and, together with Raya Dunayevskaya and Grace Lee, formed the Johnson-Forest Tendency. From James’s experience in the independence movement of Trinidad, the struggles of African Americans in the southern states and in the factories of Detroit evolved the Tendency’s emphasis on workers’ self-activity; their autonomous rank-and-file revolts made the prerequisite of a vanguard party superfluous. In State Capitalism and World Revolution, James considered the Ford assembly line as “the prototype of production relations in fascist Germany and Stalinist Russia” (Cleaver 1979: 46). The Soviet Union was not just a degenerate worker’s state but thoroughly state capitalist, its bureaucracy nothing else but “American bureaucracy carried to its ultimate and logical conclusion.”
Linking his vision of mass insurrection in Haiti that overtook any conscious design of the leaders or intellectuals to a quasi-anarchosyndicalist trend, James substituted the “disciplined spontaneity” of workers for the mediation of a vanguard party: “The proletariat always breaks up the old organization by impulse, a leap…. The new organization, the new organism will begin with spontaneity, i.e., free creative activity, as its necessity” (Cleaver 1979: 47). This was a drastic revision of the fundamental proposition found in Notes on Dialectics: “The Universal of socialism is the free proletariat” (1980: 152). In a letter to Constance Webb in 1944 while he was studying Hegel, James wrote: “The Marxist prepares the workers subjectively for what history prepares them objectively” (1996: 148). In Modern Politics ten years later, James again privileged the self-activity of the “great masses of people,” participatory radical democracy in action (1960: 42). The sociologist Kevin Anderson points out that in the 1948 study of Hegel, James synthesized Lenin’s ideas on organization and the “spontaneous activity and self-movement” or “free creative activity of the proletariat” within their own mass formations (1995, 200-01). Universality, in James’s hermeneutics, epitomizes the kernel of dialectics, the interpenetration of opposites, multileveled contradictions as the impetus of historical motion (Ollman1993). The search for universality begins and ends with the collective praxis of the people, popular energies unified and harnessed to explode commodity-fetishism and the legitimacy of unequal property/power relations (on “universality” from a critical-realist perspective, see Bhaskar 1993).
By the end of World War II, James traced the genealogy of United States imperialism from its beginning, the break with the “triangular trade of mercantilism,” through its intervention in Asia and Latin America, up to its victory against fascist barbarism. The profoundly synthesizing reach of the essay “The American People in ‘One World'” (1944) affords us a foretaste of the prescience invested in the 1947 discourse on “Dialectical Materialism.” It also foreshadows what James speculated as the impending apocalypse of world capitalism rehearsed in the 1962 Appendix to The Black Jacobins, which juxtaposes the figures of Toussaint and Fidel Castro embedded in the tradition of capital’s “gravediggers.” I would like to quote a lengthy passage trom this 1944 essay to illustrate the antipostcolonial unequivocality typical of James’s intellect:

American imperialism there becomes the chief bulwark of the capitalist system as a whole…. The colossal power of American imperialism is the apex of a process–the rise, maturity and decline of the capitalist world market. In the eighteenth century, “our country,” in the triumph of its industrial bourgeoisie, released the great political potentialities of the European proletariat, the mortal enemy of the European bourgeoisie. Today “our country” can release nothing. Driven by the contradictions of its own capitalistic development and of capitalism as a whole, it is now the enemy of hundreds of millions of people everythwere. The appearance of liberator of peoples is a necessary disguise for the essential reality of American imperialism, epitome of decadent capitalism, mobilized for the defense of privilege and property against a world crying to be free.
The laws of dialectics are to be traced not in metaphysical abstractions such as 168 years of “our country,” but in economic development and the rise, maturity, and decline of different social classes within the expansion and construction of the capitalist world market. The greatest progressive force in the eighteenth century, the nationalism of “our country,” is in the twentieth century the greatest of obstacles to social progress. In accordance with a fundamental dialectical law, the progressive “nationalism” of eighteenth-century America is transformed into its opposite, the reactionary “internationalism” of American imperialism…. American imperialism cannot escape its entanglements in foreign class struggles even if it would…. In our compact world, successful revolt in any area will sound the tocsin for the center more violently than the American revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth century shook metropolitan Europe. And the social crisis in America must bring onto the scene the American proletariat. (1994: 175-76)

The submerged narrative line of this essay follows the twists and turns found in the 1938 masterpiece, The Black Jacobins. I would like to emphasize three paramount theses enunciated here. First, the rise of the world market converts the whole world into an arena of revolutionary struggle so that the challenge in the periphery immediately registers in the metropolitan center. Second, the mode of imperial accumulation has generated the American proletariat which inherits the international revolutionary tradition and also utilizes “the great American tradition of the past” in the struggle for socialism. Third, the agencies of transformative politics aim for concrete specific objects that eventually generate worldwide repercussions: “The farmers, mechanics and artisans, the workers and Negro slaves, pursued strictly immediate and concrete aims and made world history” (1994, 177). The cunning of Reason becomes immanent in quotidian events, rendering even defeats and reversals stepping-stones in the oppressed people’s quest for universality, i.e., for freedom and happiness.
The universality we confront daily in the twentieth century is that of the world market which has compressed time/space through mass communications and technological innovations in travel. For James, however, that signifies the universality of commodity-fetishism and the totalitarian state. All the same, the phenomenon is constituted by multiple contradictions. James’s unfinished project, American Civilization, is precisely the endeavor to anatomize the universality known as United States imperialism, its essence (only grasped through theoretical practice) and appearances, the phenomenology of everyday life.
The fundamental thrust of American Civilization is “the creation of an integral human being.” This is predicated on the idea of the good life associated with freedom and happiness as revolutionary goals. Closely identified with African Americans and women as social forces, those goals have been compromised, mocked, postponed, sidetracked, or even negated by capitalist “mass production” and its drift toward barbarism. The original ideals of liberty, pursuit of happiness, and free individuality have now been shipwrecked in the economic and social realities of the Depression in the thirties and the relentless barbarism of the Cold War.
In assessing the impotence of American intellectuals, James arrived at the only force that can resist the worldwide barbarism: “the instinctive rebelliousness and creative force of the modern masses” (1993, 226). Unlike Weber and the resort to charismatic leaders, James pits the masses against a world-system of bureaucratic state structures. What climaxes James’s analytic of the contradiction between aspirations and realities is the chapter on “Popular Arts and Modern Society,” in which modern film, newspaper, comic strip, jazz, and radio are seen as “an expression of mass response to society, crises, and the nature and limitations of that response” (1993: 122). This contradiction is embodied in the figure of the gangster, “the persistent symbol of the national past which has no meaning–the past in which energy, determination, bravery were certain to get a man somewhere in the line of opportunity… [The] gangster who displays all the old heroic qualities in the only way he can display them, is the derisive symbol of the contrast between ideals and reality” (1993: 127). The rage and violence one finds in popular film constitute an index of “the mass exposing…its desire to smash the impasse in which it finds itself”–in short, a cathartic release of the repression of the masses by a disciplinary, surveillance system, what Henri Lefebvre (1971) calls the “bureaucratic society of controlled consumption.”
In 1960, James turned to the dynamics of the revolution in the Gold Coast of Africa and reinstated the conceptual primacy of the term “people” in the lexicon of socialist political theory (1971: 133; on James’s views on Ghana’s Nkrumah, see Marable 1986). Thus when he invokes the American “people” in his brand of reception-aesthetics, James returns to the guiding insight of The Black Jacobins derived from Lenin and Michelet in which the dialectic between leaders and masses is calibrated with astute realism. The dialectical method is premised on the “concrete analysis” of material conditions that determine the limits and possibilities of action. James’s analysis of popular association and mass organizing together with their symbolic expression is thus able to imbue the “national-popular” striving for revolutionary hegemony with the intractable “thickness” of historicity.
But historicism in American Civilization is neither antiquarian nor monumental because it is oriented to present imperatives and agendas. It acquires a prophetic thrust when James underscores its utopian telos: happiness. What distinguishes his socioanalytic of the American character is an abundant faith in its potential: “[The American people] combine an excessive individualism, a sense of the primary value of their own individual personality, with an equally remarkable need, desire and capacity for social cooperative action” (1993: 273). Because this volatile, aggressive individualism has been suppressed by technocratic corporate statism, a profound social crisis has ripened: anger and fear “irresistibly explode in private life.” Such explosions are registered not in refined intellectual exchanges but in popular culture. The twin drive for autonomy and for association, for asserting a distinctive personality and for “intimate communion with his fellows,” cannot be fulfilled within the regime of commodity-fetishism or mass consumerism, hence the crisis and its symptoms in gangster movies, in the private lives of women, blacks, and intellectuals.
In Mariners, Renegades and Castaways (1953), James pointed out how Melville captured in Ahab’s predicament the crisis of transition, the tension between the masses “seeking a new basis for a sense of community” and the eruption of “the most boundlessly egotistical individual personalities” in the political arena (130). But as always, James finds a resolution to all this crisis in his argument about the overriding importance of “the struggle for happiness” and for self-fulfillment in social reciprocity.7 By “happiness” is meant the integration between individual personality and the larger community, the synthesis of public commitment and private interest, in short, the political life defined and elaborated by James in Modern Politics (1960) and Every Cook Can Govern (1956).
The theoretical framework deployed in this ambitious cognitive mapping of the United States as a “civilization,” its contradictory trends and aleatory tendencies, is what we have already encountered in The Black Jacobins. It is an invention of the diasporic sensibility that apprehends the manifold links between national and the international, the local and global, the singular and the universal. I designate it the triangulation of universality in the capitalist world-system.8 One illustration can be adduced here. In the last chapter of The Black Jacobins, James traced the race war and carnage in Haiti as due to “the greed of the French bourgeoisie” (355). From this he concludes that in contrast to nineteenth-century Haiti, the “blacks in Africa [in mid-twentieth century] are more advanced” in their pursuit of freedom:

From the people heaving in action will come the leaders; not the isolated blacks at Guys’ Hospital or the Sorbonne, the dabblers in surrealisme or the lawyers, but the quiet recruits in a black police force, the sergeant in the French native army or British police, familiarising himself with military tactics and strategy, reading a stray pamphlet of Lenin or Trostsky as Toussaint read the Abbe Raynal. (1963: 377)

What sutures the diverse materials in The Black Jacobins, American Civilization, and Mariners, Renegades and Castaways is a singular theme of universality, this time cognized as the spontaneous, self-directed, inexhaustible power of the masses.
James reworked his Eurocentric education and redefined his identity as “a Man of the Caribbean” by triangulating the regions that configured the African diaspora: Africa, the Caribbean, and Europe.9 Colonialism and the slave trade established the necessity of the Caribbean as a vital, irreplaceable link in primitive capital accumulation. With his adventurous intuition, James could encompass distant points in space that would otherwise remain isolated fragments, enabling him to render not syncretic pastiches or bricolage of semiotic utopia but the actual process of decolonization: “All problems today, particularly the emancipation of the underdeveloped countries, are matters in which the world in general is involved; and at the centre of African emancipation, particularly in the development of ideas and international strategy, are the urban blacks of America” (1992: 376). This passion of the islander for cognitive and geopolitical mapping–an index of the masses’ self-activity and drive for collective self-representation–explains why he considers “Negroes” as Americans, not a separate ethnic community, whose combined segregation and integration epitomize the national crisis, the “modern Americanism, a profoundly social passion of frustration and violence” that distinguishes the United States in the midst of the Cold War.

Socialism or Barbaric Capitalist Racism

A decisive turn in James’s itinerary as an authentic dialectical-materialist thinker occurred in his re-examination of the “Negro question” or the articulation of the categories of race and class in social critique. He had already confronted the race-class nexus in the early thirties in united-front campaigns in support of Abyssinian resistance to Italian imperialism and the campaign for West Indian self-government. Before he returned to the United States by way of New Orleans after his fateful meeting with Trotsky in Mexico in 1939, James invariably subsumed the fact of “racism” in the master-code of class struggle. The encounter with “race”–the recent volume C.L.R. James on the “Negro Question” edited by Scott McLemee documents this fateful encounter–reconfigured his whole way of thinking and generated the praxis of what became the “mass line” in “Third World” people’s war in Vietnam, Nicaragua, the Philippines, and elsewhere.
In 1938, towards the end of The Black Jacobins, C. L. R James reflected on the dialectic between the categories of race and class that framed his narrative of the first black slave uprising in the world: “The race question is subsidiary to the class question in politics, and to think of imperialism in terms of race is disastrous. But to neglect the racial factor as merely incidental is an error only less grave than to make it fundamental” (1963: 283). The reason for the internationalist focus on the class question, according to Paul Buhle (1988), lies in the Trotskyist principle of transcending national specifics for the sake of a grand epic of solidarity between the European proletariat and the “black Jacobins” of the colonies.
James at that time had never paid attention to the condition of the African Americans in the United States, but before his trip he had already been involved in the pan-African movement in England, particularly in the campaign for Abyssinian independence against European imperialism. And yet this concern of people of color for national self-determination of African colonies, and later of Caribbean societies, allegedly did not change his view that the class question predominates over the race question. In a useful review, Tony Martin reiterated this position: “Even when accepting the applicability of Lenin’s ideas on national minorities to the movement for self-determination among Afro-Americans, for example, or when appearing to condone the rhetoric of Black Power, he has never deviated from his view that race is subordinate to class” (1972: 186).
Is it correct to affirm the argument that James never deviated from his 1938 conviction of the priority of class over race? I contend that it is not correct. In the aforementioned collection of writings by James on the “Negro Question” (1996), Scott McLemee also concurs with the idea that James’s final word on the race/class antithesis may be found in the resolution James authored for the Socialist Workers’ Party Convention of 1948. The document entitled “The Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Problem in the United States” indeed synthesizes scattered thoughts and reflections on the situation of African Americans in the United States that James expressed in voluminous writings. But this synthesis does not indicate the easy, automatic subsumption of race into class. In fact, the trajectory of the argument here implies a move toward a concrete dialectic negotiation of the claims of these two categories.
What is striking here, compared to his previous writings on the “Negro question,” is James’s insistence that the vitality and validity of the independent Negro struggle for democratic right “is in itself a constituent part of the struggle for socialism.” It has deep historic roots that entitle it to autonomous and integral identity. While James emphasizes that blacks “approach the conclusions of Marxism,” the problematic aspect is the relation between the organized labor movement and the African American demand for equality. James denies that this is “merely a class question,” even though he states that what is involved is “a question of the reorganization of the whole agricultural system” of the country. He invokes Lenin to resolve this impasse: Lenin says “that the dialectic of history is such that small independent nations, small nationalities, which are powerless… in this struggle against imperialism nevertheless can act as one of the ferments, one of the bacilli, which can bring onto the scene the real power against imperialism–the socialist proletariat” (182). So the black struggle can become the catalyst for the emergence of the socialist proletariat. But it does not mean that because the oppressed minorities, or nationalities, are powerless, therefore they proletariat has got to lead them and that “they cannot do anything until the proletariat actually comes forward to lead them. [Lenin] says exactly the opposite is the case” (182).
James reviews history and concludes: “Such is the situation of the masses of the Negro people and their readiness to revolt at the slightest opportunity, that as far back as the Civil War, in relation to the American bourgeoisie, they formed a force which initiated and stimulated and acted as a ferment “(183). The metaphor of ferment or bacilli is revealing but loaded also with dissonant connotations. But if the function of the oppressed nationalities is to initiate the proletariat into the scene by their agitation and resistance, are they therefore to be incorporated into the revolutionary proletariat and forfeit their autonomy? The evidence of black participation in the War of Independence and more crucially in the Civil War, as well as in the Populist movement, all demonstrate the need for a leadership that will not betray their cause. Except for the Garvey movement, all previous social movements failed to acknowledge their demand for emancipation from “capitalist humiliation and from capitalist oppression” (184).
James then posits the independent character of the African American struggle within the social crisis of the political formation. But this independence is distinguished for being attuned to the progressive forces at any historical conjuncture. Before it was the bourgeoisie and now it is the proletariat. Based on their response to the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) organizing efforts, James concludes that “the Negro movement logically and historically and concretely is headed for the proletariat” (185). This movement of the blacks “toward the revolutionary forces” is, James notes, “stronger today than ever before” in the context of the decay of capitalism and the resurgence of the labor movement (185). James observes that “a substantial number of Negroes” have been placed in “a position of primacy in the struggle against capitalism,” but this place in the vanguard of the proletarian movement coincides with their postion in the Negro community–a decisive intersection or confluence of the democratic and anticapitalist impulses. James does not collapse the two. He reserves an integral place for the bacilli in his concluding, prophetic statement: “Let us not forget that in the Negro people, there sleep and are now awakening passions of a violence exceeding, perhaps, as far as these things can be compared, anytning among the tremendous forces that capitalism has created…. [A]lthough their social force may not be able to compare with the social force of a corresponding number of organized workers, the hatred of bourgeois society and the readiness to destroy it when the opportunity should present itself, rests among them to a degree greater than in any other section of the population in the United States” (187).
It is in this light that James can be justly regarded as the innovative theoretician of black self-emancipation. The African American scholar Sundiata Cha-Jua (1996) historicizes James’s exploration of the race-class nexus that led to the crafting of a “neo-Marxist diasporan historiography” and proposes the view that “what began as a progressive project to fill theoretical gaps in Marxism regarding race, by the late 1940s had evolved into a theory recognizing the autonomous activity of all socially constructed groups, by the late 1950s ended as a renouncement of the proletariat’s historical agency.” There is no doubt that James abandoned a sclerotic vanguardism after 1958 and became preoccupied with the problem of mass agency, although I think his populist strain did not completely displace a class analysis, as evidenced by talks like “Black Power” (1967), “Black Studies and the Contemporary Student” (1969), and “Black People in the Urban Areas of the United States” (1970). The praxis of popular-democratic radical transformation for him still pivoted around the slogan “socialism or barbarism” (Glaberman 1995).

Power to the People

James’s rich and complex body of work cannot of course be reduced to the topic of black self-emancipation or antipostcoloniality. But this is one way of estimating its worth, its usefulness for the exploited and oppressed. It is also part of a project of shaping an epistemology of the revolutionary subject, of collective agency. “Knowing one’s self” is, in Gramsci’s famous phrase, an affair of trying to sort out the infinity of traces deposited in us by a historical process that unfortunately forgot to supply us with an inventory. Such traces are not just discursive palimpsests or tropological language games, as postcolonial theory insists. Knowing C.L.R. James is a matter of constructing the inventory of engagements that he has partly provided in Beyond a Boundary, Mariners, Renegades and Castaways, American Civilization, and voluminous tracts and essays. There is much in James’s geopolitical hermeneutics of cricket that reveals the trajectory of his quest for universality; but the indigenization of cricket could have been realized only through the mediation of a rich and complex Marxist tradition (albeit from the Trotskyist archive), through American literature exemplified by the prophetic art of Melville, and through a series of antiimperialist struggles in Africa and Asia, including the African American insurrections of the sixties and seventies.
James was one of the first Marxist-Leninists to appreciate the symptomatic value of mass media culture. But his dialectical brand of cultural criticism can be reappropriated by the fashionable trend in Cultural Studies only at the risk of positivist vulgarization. In an astute essay, Neil Larsen demonstrates that for James it is the “negativity” in popular culture, the promises of freedom and happiness that it intimates but cannot supply, its transgressive meanings that need appraisal, not its formal popularity; this negativity “makes popular culture into a potentially ‘popular art,’ that makes it a progressive moment relative to the elite culture whose negation it posits” (1996: 99). This application of a “negative dialectics” to mass culture actually originates from the moment James in exile experienced the discordance between the schemas of received theory and the recalcitrance of lived experience.
In a sense, James’s exile conforms to Said’s contrapuntal version of it: “Exile is predicated on the existence of, love for, and a real bond with one’s native place; the universal truth of exile is not that one has lost that love or home, but that inherent in each is an unexpected, unwelcome loss” (1993: 336). Such unwelcome loss is not James’s but the hegemonic elite in the United States and other oppositional activists in the American hemisphere who never recognized or acknowledged his substantial contribution to the critical assessment of what he calls “American civilization.”
When he was about to write his book on Melville, James was sent to Ellis Island in June 1952. He compared the immigration quarters there to Melville’s Pequod, microcosm of world civilization; he was an alien, however, and told that he “could always leave and go to Trinidad, where I was born, and drink my papaya juice” (1985: 146). But it was not this contemptible treatment that James sought to register in the memoirs of his captivity; rather, it was his encounter with M, a Communist Party member, whose instructive help may have neutralized his residual Trotskyism; 10 and the numerous prisoners, sailors, and members of an entire diasporic assemblage whose comprehension of global events was enabled and sustained by their aboriginal roots, their nativist loyalties. This brief incarceration exhibits not postcolonial aporia, liminal indeterminacy, or even creolized signification but rather the cunning and versatility of a praxis-oriented (in contrast to pragmatic) imagination that can sum up heterogenous materials in a way capable of moving and inducing action:

This then is the crowning irony of the little cross-section of the whole world that is Ellis Island. That while the United States Department of Justice is grimly pursuing a venomous anti-alien policy, and in the course of doing so disrupting and demoralizing its own employees desperately trying to live up to their principles, the despised aliens, however fiercely nationalistic, are profoundly conscious of themselves as citizens of the world. (1985: 161-62)

Provisionally I suggest that James’s belief in permanent world revolution ultimately committed him to a radical-popular democracy almost anarchic and utopian in temper and motivation. Not so much a DuBoisean “double consciousness” but an unabashedly totalizing reconnaissance of polarities and their nexus of mutations characterizes James application of historical materialism. Like Fanon, he did not dispense with the nation or nationalitarian longings as a moment in the liberation struggle. He was of course a victim of the Cold War. But what made him transcend this victimage is the narrative of his itinerary as diasporic intellectual, from the time of his departure from the West Indies in 1932 to his political and scholarly engagements while in Britain, to his grass-roots work in the United States, and finally to August 1952 and his indictment as a writer equal to Lenin and Marx as founders of revolutionary organizations–the government’s main brief.
In summing up his lifework in Beyond a Boundary, James invoked the anticipatory figure of Shakespeare’s antihero in The Tempest: “To establish his own identity, Caliban, after three centuries, must himself pioneer into regions Caesar never knew” (1993b: 166). James was a pioneering revolutionary writer, indeed, who preoccupied himself with the inescapable choice confronting humanity–between socialist humanism/universalism or Eurocentric capitalist barbarism–whether in diasporic motion (immigrants, refugees, “castaways”) or in entrenched fortresslike habitats. Caribbean scholars today attribute this concern to his Trinidad background, to a peculiar West Indian cosmopolitanism, its unique mode of cultural resistance (cricket, carnival, calypso, and reggae), its gift of looking outward, the genius of its passion for universality.
Whatever the weight of primordial influences, the fact is that it was Marxism, at first with a Trotskyite orientation and later with a diasporic or “Third World” inflection, that was always susceptible to global happenings (for example, the emergence of “workers’ councils in the Hungarian revolution), that allowed James to articulate his intellectual and moral responsibility toward the West Indian community with what Hazel Carby calls “historical readings of the international significance of cultural production.” When he made the dialectical leap from the doctrinaire idea of “proletarian literature” (1988: 42) to the notion of “revolutionary literature” that coalesced individual, class, and national dimensions, James had already superseded the postcolonial obsession with difference and its “politics of recognition” (see Taylor 1994) and transvalued this phase of the “Unhappy Consciousness” for the strategic tasks of worldwide popular emancipation. And for us engaged in those tasks, that is what makes the necessary difference.

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About philcsc

E.SAN JUAN, Jr. directs the Philippines Cultural Studies Center, Washington DC, USA and lectures at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, Manila, Philippines.
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