CLR James and the idea of an African revolution

By | February 7, 2011

Events in Tunisia and Egypt have brought back the issue of revolution to international debate. Already I can feel my book, which was once called The African Revolution and has since become Africa’s Urban Revolution, moving with the times. It is too early to say whether North Africa’s “revolutions” will change the world as profoundly as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of apartheid in 1989-90. A counter-revolution may yet succeed in either or both places. But the challenge posed by popular mobilizations to autocratic regimes is already an irreversible fact.

I vividly recall watching the events in Tiananmen Square on TV with an old West Indian revolutionary in his cramped Brixton bedsit. His name was C.L.R. James, it was April 1989 and he died the next month aged 88. Who can forget the Chinese man who stopped a line of tanks by running in front of them? We both felt that this was a historical turning point, as did the whole world. James thought that the Chinese government would probably succeed in putting down the student rebellion; but their protest coincided with an international meeting to which the Soviet leader, Gorbachev, came and CLR told me that Eastern Europe could never be held by the Soviet Union after this. It took a bit more than half a year for the East Germans to bring down the Wall.

James had long believed that there were only two world revolutions left — the second Russian revolution and the second American revolution. He embraced Lech Walesa’s Solidarity movement as a harbinger of the first, but his keen sense of unfolding history saw Tiananmen Square as the tipping point. He didn’t live to see his prophecy realised. Perhaps radical regime change in the US would be the last world revolution, since world society as a whole is by now an American fiefdom.

C.L.R. James left his native Trinidad for London in 1932 as a sports writer with some published short fiction and a novel manuscript in his luggage. He was 31 years old and, after loitering in Bloomsbury for a while, he joined the famous cricketer, Learie Constantine, in Nelson, Lancashire, then known locally as ‘Little Moscow’ for its working class activism. There he read his first example of Marxist literature, Trostsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, before returning to London. By the time he left for the United States in 1938, he had become one of the leading Trotskyite spokesmen in Britain, the first black Caribbean writer to publish a novel there (Minty Alley), he got out a couple of pieces on West Indian self-government, wrote the first history of the Communist International (World Revolution), was employed by the Manchester Guardian as a cricket reporter, founded the panafricanist International Africa Service Bureau with his childhood friend George Padmore, involving also Jomo Kenyatta and later Kwame Nkrumah, wrote a London play with Paul Robeson as Toussaint L’Ouverture and published the definitive history of the Haitan revolution (The Black Jacobins) as well as a short history of black struggles for emancipation on both sides of the Atlantic over the previous 150 years (History of Negro Revolt).

According to James, the succesful Haitian slave revolt of 1791-1804 deserved to be seen as being equal in historical significance to the American and French revolutions; yet it had been almost buried from view. The slaves were in some ways the first moderns, uprooted from their origins and made to work in the most advanced form of industrial capitalism of the day, the sugar plantations of the French colony Saint-Domingue, under a system of violent racial domination. Having beaten the French, they fought off armies sent by the world’s great powers, just as Trotsky had to after the revolution of 1917. The British lost an army of 60,000 men in Haiti and the war against Napoleon was set back five years while they raised another one. This was also the heyday of the international movement to abolish slavery. The British prime minister, William Pitt, was persuaded by events in Haiti, coming so soon after American independence, to abolish the slave trade and turn the focus of the British empire from the New World to India.

James’s writing was not simply or even mainly an exercise in black pride. The Black Jacobins ended with reflections on the relevance of the Haitian revolution for the contemporary struggle for African independence from colonial rule. An impressive coalition had grown up in the first half of the twentieth century calling itself Panafricanism and drawing on all parts of the African continent, as well as the European homelands of colonial empire and the New World African diaspora created by the Atlantic slave trade. As a nationalist movement aiming to restore control of African land to Africans and fueled by the dream of a return from the New World, Panafricanism brought together more people from different places and languages than any other at the time or since. James placed himself squarely within this movement. He liked to say “I had a fair wind at my back, the anti-colonial movement”.

In the 1930s, very few people, whether European or African, believed that the colonial powers could be forced to leave soon. James’s political associates on the far left in Europe told him that African independence could only be granted by a successful workers’ revolution in the homelands of empire. He disagreed. What he took from the Haitian revolution was the view that racial domination, when combined with exposure to advanced forms of industrial capitalism, made for a potent revolutionary mixture. In the History of Negro Revolt he set out to describe and analyze the uprisings of Africans and people of African descent on both sides of the Atlantic since the Haitian revolution. He showed that the main theatre of action in the 19th century was the New World, but for the last half century Africa had become the principal focus of conflict. He saw that the most promising movements were in the principal concentrations of industry — the South African gold mines, the dock workers in the Gold Coast, the Abba women’s riots in Eastern Nigeria over oil palm exports. Capitalist exploitation + racial inequality = revolution…and sooner than you think!

Well, the Second World War helped, but James was right and almost everyone else was wrong. The collapse of European empire in Africa lagged by only a decade behind its demise in Asia. It took a bit longer to displace the Portuguese and the Southern white settlers, but independence from British and French rule was an inescapable fact within two decades of James making his prediction. Like his Martinican counterpart in the Panafricanist movement, Frantz Fanon, James was quickly disillusioned with the path that African independence took, writing a highly critical account of his friend, Kwame Nkrumah’s turn towards nationalism (Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution, compare the long central chapter on “the pitfalls of national consciousness” In Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth).

Egypt plays a pivotal role in all this when seen in a longer-term perspective. Africa is both a continental territory and the home of a race, the place where black people come from. And Eqypt’s relationship to a combination of both is highly contested. North Africa was part of the urban revolution that launched agrarian civilization five millennia ago, whereas most of the rest of Africa was not. My argument here is that this difference has been narrowed by the rapid urbanization of Africa south of the Sahara in the 20th century, leading to the installation there of variants of the Old Regime of preindustrial civilization. But then the whole attempt to separate Black Africa from Egypt and the Mediterranean littoral is an extension of the imperialist cultural logic which divided Western Europe from its neighbours by severing ancient Greece from its historical, geographical and cultural links with the Eastern Mediterranean, including crucially Egypt (see Martin Bernal’s Black Athena).

Many Westerners in the 18th and 19th centuries believed that Eqypt was the original source of world civilization and the Afrocentrics (see Cheikh Anta Diop The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality) argue that Eqypt itself should be seen as part of black African civilization. Certainly, if the Sahara seems an obstacle to movement between the Mediterranean and West Africa, the same cannot be said of the East, where the Nile, the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean coast have always linked Egypt with the peoples of Sudan, Ethiopia and East Africa and the wide savannah links East and West Africa. Egypt has long been a significant member of organizations defined by the African continent, ranging from the African Union to World Cup football. If Nasser made Egypt the main centre of Panarabism and the Arab-Israeli wars, followed by latterday demonization of Islam in the West (“the clash of civilizations”), have reinforced that perceived alignment, the importance of the North African revolutions for developments in Africa more generally should not be underestimated.

CLR James studied revolutions in history because he wanted to help make them. Right up to his death, he devoured biographies of the leading figures of the French revolution such as Danton. He used to say that in any country you will only find a handful of specialists in politics (including revolutionaries like him), maybe a few tens of thousands. These people dream about change and make plans for change all the time. Most people just want to keep what they have and that is a good thing, he said; life would be impossible without this inherent human conservatism. But “the revolution comes like a thief in the night” (Marx) when no-one is expecting it. Events move very quickly and many people soon discover that there is no going back, they may have already lost what they had or at least can no longer count on the status quo ante. Then something remarkable happens, he said: you may have seen a guy with an umbrella at the bus stop for years; he keeps his head down and says nothing; but now he turns up as a leading organizer of a street committee. Revolution revolutionizes people and everything becomes radically simplified at least for a time: freedom, dignity, democracy as universally shared goals, universal solidarity as a norm. At this time professional revolutionaries may have their uses.

In my next post, I will explore the specific implications of the North African revolutions for Africa. This may help me to define a number of senses that I bring to using the term “African revolution”.

3 thoughts on “CLR James and the idea of an African revolution

  1. Anti-Intellect

    I was linked to this blog post by a friend of mine on twitter, and I really appreciated the scholarship you presented. I like that you addressed the way imperialist thinking has tried to remove Egypt from Africa, and the important role that Egypt will play in middle east and north african revolutions of the future. The idea that revolutions revolutionize people is a powerful one indeed, and I think most people aren’t aware of that. I had to ask myself after reading your post, whether or not the United States is due another revolution. The gap between the rich and the poor, the haves and the havenots, is steadily rising, and I can’t see how that won’t eventually lead to revolution, unless of course there is a great technological innovation.

  2. Saul

    Hey Keith,

    Thanks for this post. I have been wondering about how to tie the Egyptian revolution into the large world system. I was not aware that CLR thought there would be two more revolutions one being Russian and other being American. Yet, as you rightly point out the America that we understand extends beyond the borders of the geographic America. What does this mean for the potential of a second American revolution? Where would it be triggered? Much as the Egyptian revolution was triggered by the events in Tunisia it is possible that America’s revolution would be triggered from a far-off land.

    Again, I always appreciate your focus on Africa and its unique and critical role in the global.


  3. Pingback: The Memory Bank » Blog Archive » The second American revolution?

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