For several years I have been introducing students and friends to C.L.R. James’s book, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. Originally published in 1938, it is a study of the great Haitian slave insurrection that began in 1791 and was directly influenced by the ideas and actions of the French Revolution of 1789. Readers who do not know of the book react with excitement and admiration, and there is for me the special pleasure of watching people make a major discovery, as I made the same discovery some time before. For in this brilliantly written and stirring masterpiece of historical writing—surely among the great books of 20th-century scholarship—one also encounters a genuinely heroic as well as tragic story. Toussaint is portrayed as the other majestic figure produced by the French Revolution (Napoleon is the first), an illiterate slave whose remarkable intellect and capacities for leadership won freedom for his downtrodden people, but whose failure either to take that people into his confidence or realistically to assess the realities of French imperialism brought about his defeat.
James’s narrative is moving not only because it is so marvellously written, dramatic anecdotes interwoven with masterly historical analysis of what slavery and abolition were really about, but because it reaffirms the value of the epic struggle for human emancipation and enlightenment. In our post-modern age, expectations about the possibility of massive change for the better have been lowered; local competence and expertise seem to matter more than revolutions, and most people in the West think of the non-European world as primitive, full of uninformed violence and tyranny. To such deflationary impulses, James’s work is the perfect antidote: it transforms the Haitian revolution from a provincial and all-but-forgotten episode into an illustration of how, in the phrase from Aimé Césaire that James quotes in the book, ‘there is a place for all at the rendezvous of victory.’
Who then is C.L.R. James? As Paul Buhle’s excellent new biography makes clear, he is a centrally important 20th-century figure, a Trinidadian black whose life as a scholar of history, political activist, cricket player and critic, cultural maverick, restless pilgrim between
Inevitably, then, he was led to the struggle for Trinidad’s independence, and through that quickly entered local politics. As pamphleteer and speaker—two roles he played for fifty years in Britain, the Caribbean and the United States—James compelled attention for his eloquence, meticulously articulated analyses and fabulous memory. When he came to England in 1932, he wrote columns for the Manchester Guardian and began his career as a Trotskyist activist, also finding time to begin The Black Jacobins, which he first put into dramatic form in 1936 as a play for Paul Robeson. He never accepted Robeson’s Stalinist ideas, but despite this the two men remained good friends, alternating the parts of Toussaint and Dessalines (his lieutenant) in James’s play.
Buhle discusses James’s personal and amorous encounters allusively, perhaps out of tactful respect for his subject’s sensibility: James is still alive, and living in the Brixton section of London. But James is clearly a complex, vastly energetic man, whose life sprawls interestingly in many directions. Little is given us about his several marriages, except that they were troubled (and produced one son, whom Buhle scarcely mentions); similarly, after James comes to the United States for fifteen years in 1938, Buhle analyses his complicated political work and positions within the American Trotskyite movement, but refers only tantalizingly to James’s association with W.E.B. DuBois, Norman Mailer, Richard Wright, Meyer Schapiro and Ralph Ellison. One would have wanted less about the often arid sectarian disputes James was involved in, and more on his reading and writing, his constantly developing sense of himself and his surprisingly generous range of cultural styles—novelist, cultural critic, teacher, activist.
He was expelled from the United States in 1953, a victim of McCarthyism. During the months of his Ellis Island detention as an undesirable alien, he produced one of his least-known but most powerful works, a study of Melville (‘America’s Shakespeare and Marx’, in Mariners, Renegades and Castaways). He returned to Britain and quickly plunged into pan-African politics. He was not only close to Ghanaian leader Kwame Nkrumah, but also had much to do with the theory and practice of anti-imperialism, in which his friends and disciples included
Buhle is impressive when he portrays James during his later years as a cultural ‘magus’ with an unabashed love of great English and European literature. And Buhle shows how this love lifted James above the natural resentment at the ‘white’ civilization that, as a colonial black, he rightly saw as the cause of so much suffering in the non-white world. Ever the outsider, James never fell into the trap of drawing rigid final lines between peoples, or even oppressor and oppressed. As a revolutionary champion of black struggle, he gave in neither to the separatism of the black-power philosophy nor to the nativism of the black-is-beautiful variety, but, as Buhle says, ‘moved to place the great achievements of all world culture into a proper relation with each other and with the common human fate. James, and those who followed him, did not need to give up Shakespeare, the ultimate proper dramatist, in order to honour reggae; they recognized that to understand each is to understand the other bettter.’