By Christian Hogsbjerg
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How Marxist historian CLR James understood racism and revolutions

This article is over 10 years, 8 months old
Issue 2376

“Black history is rich, inspiring, and unknown. Black people revolted against the slave raiders in Africa; they revolted against the slave traders on the Atlantic passage.  They revolted on the plantations…the only place where black people did not revolt is in the pages of capitalist historians.”

So wrote the Trinidadian revolutionary Marxist CLR James in 1939. The previous year he’d published his majestic history of the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804, The Black Jacobins.

It demonstrated that the Haitian Revolution was one of the greatest revolutions of its age, intertwined with the French Revolution.  

As well as establishing Haiti as the world’s first independent black republic outside of Africa, it was the only successful slave revolt in modern history.

Under the revolutionary leadership of Toussaint L’Ouverture and others, the ideas of liberty, equality, and fraternity, became a material force embodied in the black rebel slave army. 

The path-breaking work of James and other historians such as the WEB Du Bois and Trinidadian nationalist Eric Williams—all descendants of slaves—revolutionised historical understanding of slavery and its abolition.

They saw the questions of racism and race that came out of slavery within a wider context relating to class, power and capitalist accumulation.  

James declared in 1969 that “I do not know, as a Marxist, black studies as such … this is the history of Western Civilisation, the history that black people and white people and all serious students of modern history have to know”.  

As a young writer in colonial Trinidad, James had been a supporter of the mass nationalist Trinidad Workingmen’s Association which had emerged out of the general strike in 1919. 

In 1932 he moved to Britain and found himself staying in Nelson, Lancashire. There he witnessed another inspiring display of resistance and working class solidarity—this time in support of cotton workers striking back against Tory austerity and job cuts.

In later years, whenever anyone argued that the working class movement in Britain was somehow too “backward” or not “educated” enough for socialism, James would recall that, on the contrary, it was the English working class that had “educated him”.

James became one of the most important intellectuals who radicalised towards revolutionary Marxism during the 1930s. He was a leading figure in the early tiny Trotskyist movement in Britain.

Though he would break with orthodox Trotskyism, James never abandoned fighting for multi-racial working class unity. He championed international socialism and workers’ power as the key to universal emancipation.

In his Eightieth Birthday Lectures, organised by the Race Today Collective in 1981, James was challenged by a black nationalist for having “a blind spot about the racism of the white working class”. James responded, “it would be very strange if there wasn’t some racism in the white working class because in any society the ideas that are dominant in the ruling class will find a reflection in the elements of those who work.

“But while you can accuse me of having a blind spot in regard to the racism of the white working class, I would say 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”.

Works by CLR James including The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution and Toussaint Louverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History—a Play in Three Acts edited by Christian Hogsbjerg are available at Bookmarks the socialist bookshop, 1 Bloomsbury St, London WC1B 3QE

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