CLR James


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Born in Trinidad in 1901, CLR James was a leftist writer and social theorist until his death in 1989. In the 1930s, he worked for West Indian Independence, and moved to Britain, where he wrote a number of novels, and was the cricket reporter for the Manchester Guardian. In the 1940s and early 1950s, he lived in the United States, and wrote about politics, film, literature, and literary criticism.Deported in 1953, he was much influenced by the 1957 revolution in which the former British colony of the Gold Coast became Ghana, and by the ensuing anticolonial and Black Power struggles of the 1950s and 60s.Perhaps his best known work is The Black Jacobins: Touissaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. Manuel Yang, writing in MR Zine, reminds us that this year is the 70th anniversary of this history of the successful slave rebellion that became the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1803.

Its title refers to the Jacobins, the most radical element within the French Revolution who, like the former slaves who created Haiti, propagated. . . "extreme democracy and absolute equality."

James wrote The Black Jacobins to give inspiration to the then-struggling forces of pan-African revolt against European colonialism and racial oppression. He said he wrote it while listening "most clearly and insistently" to "the booming of Franco's heavy artillery, the rattle of Stalin's firing squads and the fierce shrill turmoil of the revolutionary movement striving for clarity and influence."

Both the French and Haitian revolutions however soon foundered because the international worker solidarity on which they were founded was not preserved and developed further. Although "[t]here were Jacobin workmen in Paris who would have fought for the blacks against Bonaparte's troops," once in power Touissaint "ignored the black labourers" and tried to appease the white elites. . . .

The term "Jacobin" had taken on authoritarian connotations because the French Jacobin leadership stopped listening to the workers and commoners and shut down their radical organizations -- much as Toussaint in power lost touch with the Haitian workers. In short, the Haitian and French Revolutions … failed to go as far as they could because the new rulers destroyed, in the interest of capital and empire, the original conceptions of democracy that the self-activity of workers had made possible.

Today we are facing a similar destructive moment in history. The presidential election is poisoned with anti-immigrant rhetoric seeking to divide and decimate the working class. Following the Bonapartist model, the American Empire is perpetrating this class destruction in Haiti as well. According to the Haiti Information Project, "the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency… helped create the Revolutionary Front for Advancement and Progress of Haiti" (FRAPH) who are "responsible for the rape and murder of thousands of Haitians after a brutal military coup forced then president Jean-Bertrand Aristide into exile in 1991." U.S. aid to Haiti's brutal police force has reached $40 million. In this dark hour of ongoing crisis, reading The Black Jacobins … could give us the necessary "clarity and influence" to sustain our struggle against this new moment of war and imperialism.

And some comments from a 1949 essay by James on “The Price of Imperialism to the People”, in which James discusses

the attack which is being carried out against the civil liberties of the American people by the American bourgeoisie. That the cause of this is the “danger of communism” is the familiar alibi of all despots, parasites and privileged groups.

This was the ideological justification for the fascist dictatorships of Hitler, Mussolini and Franco-and for the police regime of Stalin, who merely substituted the word “Trotskyism” for communism. But there is one difference, a difference which speaks volumes on the subject of morality: Hitler smashed democratic rights as an open antagonist of democracy, while the American oligarchs abrogate the rights of the people in the name of the struggle against “dictatorship” and “totalitarianism.”

(or today, against terrorism)

The American bourgeoisie, first and foremost, and from first to last, is in mortal terror of the American people and, above all of the American workers. Let the stupid liberals put their fingers to their foreheads and wonder at the “hysteria” of the American government …. Let them wonder at the constant betrayals in Congress of every promise made at the election. Let them be perpetually “astonished” at the apparently senseless persecution of … scientists. They will know only frustration and impotence until they recognize that the struggles over civil rights in the United States express the intensification of the irreconcilable class antagonisms of … capitalism.

These struggles are an expression of the inevitable break-up of that society, a stage … in the transition from capitalism to a new social order. Capitalism in its decline must destroy the democracy and civil rights which it brought into the world and nourished in its progressive days. The attack against civil rights is the defense of capitalism. The defense of civil rights … involves the attack against capitalism.

You can no more separate the crisis of civil liberties from the crisis of capitalist production and the . . . war than you can separate the arm which is administering the blows from the body [to] which it is attached.

 For the Old Mole February 25, 2008