Socialist Worker

CLR James —‘The coming revolution will be black and white’

by Sadie Robinson
Issue No. 2715

CLR James

CLR James is a touchstone for black people looking for radical change (Pic: Hill123/Wikipedia)


Black people’s resistance was key to abolishing slavery and ending feudalism—and it will be key to winning socialism.

So argued Cyril Lionel Robert James, the black revolutionary and writer most famous for his history of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins.

James, the great ­grandson of slaves, described how a slave revolt established the first independent black ­republic outside Africa.

Slaves in the then French colony of Saint Domingue were inspired by the 1789 French Revolution.

James wrote that they had “construed it in their own image—the white slaves in France had risen, and killed their masters, and were now enjoying the fruits of the earth.

“It was gravely inaccurate but they had caught the spirit of the thing. Liberty. Equality. Fraternity.”

James became a ­touchstone for black people across the world looking for radical change. He stood uncompromisingly for ­“socialism from below” and stressed that ordinary people must liberate themselves.

In The Black Jacobins he wrote, “The former slaves had defeated white colonialists, Spaniards and British, and now they were free.

“There was no need to be ashamed of being a black. The revolution had awakened them, had given them the possibility of ­achievement, confidence and pride.”

James grew up among the black middle class in the British colony of Trinidad. As a young writer there, he was part of the nationalist Trinidad Workingmen’s Association.  

He was inspired by the mass movements that erupted across the British Empire after the Second World War, and began to research the history of Caribbean resistance.

But he became fed up at the quality of the books on offer about the Haitian Revolution and its leader, Toussaint L’Ouverture.

“I was tired of hearing that the West Indians were oppressed, that we were black and miserable,” he said.

Independence

In The Black Jacobins he showed how race and class were tied together.

Just three years after the revolt began, France was forced to abolish slavery across its empire.

In 1807, three years after Haiti declared its independence, Britain abandoned its participation in the Atlantic slave trade.

James wrote that the Haitian Revolution “killed the West Indian slave trade and slavery”.

He argued that Marxists had to grasp “the tremendous role played by Negroes in the transformation of Western civilisation from feudalism to capitalism.

It is only from this ­vantage-ground that we shall be able to appreciate (and prepare for) the still greater role they must play in the transition from capitalism to socialism.”

James moved to Britain in 1932, and later said the English working class had “educated” him. 

When challenged by a black nationalist in 1981 for having a “blind spot” to white ­working class racism, he replied, “You have a much blinder spot in regard to the progressive, revolutionary element of the British ­working class. That is a much more ­powerful element.”

James became a ­revolutionary and was a ­leading figure in the early small Trotskyist movement in Britain before moving to the US.

He was a literary critic, a playwright and also wrote on his beloved sport, cricket. 

James later broke with orthodox Trotskyism. But he kept fighting for workers’ unity.

This is part of a series about radical black lives Go to bit.ly/SWBlackLives

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