Ideas

C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobin

He was one of the great minds of the 20th century. A three part series, The Black Jacobin, on the fascinating C.L.R. James - writer, philosopher and preeminent figure of the African and Caribbean nationalist movement.

The Trinidadian thinker and writer’s work was decades ahead of his time

Trinidad-born journalist Cyril Lionel Robert James (1901 - 1989), 1989. (Steve Pyke/Getty Images)
This episode explores his Trinidadian upbringing, and how cricket became the inspiration for his ideas about the human condition. 53:59
The second episode explores James leaving Trinidad for England and the story behind some of his acclaimed books, including his classic study of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins. 53:59

By David Austin

When the three-part Ideas program on C.LR. James, The Black Jacobin, first aired in 2005, it struck a chord with its audience. It was as if people had been waiting to hear a program about James -  the Trinidadian thinker, fiction writer, and author of books on history, politics, sport, popular culture. A number of people approached me after it aired, including someone who recognized my voice from the documentary. In our brief conversation, he told me the program had brought tears to his Trinidadian father's eyes when he listened to it, as it brought back fond memories of his childhood. 

A large part of the program's success can be attributed to James' growing stature as one of the great thinkers of the 20th century. But it is also due to the intimacy of radio as a medium and the wonderfully creative production of then Montreal Ideas producer Jane Lewis, who whipped me into CBC shape, in what was a baptism by fire. 

James' remarkable life began in 1901 in Trinidad and ended in 1989 in England, spanning the first and second World Wars, the Russian Revolution, the Cold War, the demise of political colonialism in India, Africa and the Caribbean, the global protests of the sixties, and the collapse of the former Soviet Union - an event that much of his work anticipated. 

James was a socialist who defied orthodoxy. He was an early critic of totalitarianism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, but he also wrote an analysis of Herman Melville's fiction as part of a critique of U.S. authoritarian tendencies in the 1950s.

A precocious child, by the age of four James was reading the Bible. His father was a schoolmaster, but it was from his mother, Ida Elizabeth, that he acquired his love of reading. Shakespeare was one of James' early literary passions, and as an adult he frequently lectured on the Bard. Much later in life, he produced a manuscript on King Lear, and in response to the news that the sole copy of the manuscript had been lost, James, a writer's writer, simply suggested that he would write it again.

It is difficult to definitively argue which of his books has had the most impact. Toward the end of his life in the 1980s, he described Notes on Dialectics – his analysis of the prospects of socialism through the philosophy of G.W.F. Hegel – as his most important book. It is his most sustained analysis of self-organization, relaying the notion that so-called ordinary people have the creative capacity to organize for change without unions or politicians directing their actions. Notes on Dialectics is also a book about thinking, or how we think in order to organize. James approached politics with the imagination of a creative writer attempting to project into the future. 

Afro-Trinidadian historian, journalist and socialist Cyril Lionel Robert James (1901 - 1989) talking to a group of students at a rally organized by the 'West Indian Students Union' at Speakers' Corner, London, UK, 18th August 1967. ( Roy Milligan/Daily Express/Getty Images)

The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution and his equally classic Beyond a Boundary are without a doubt his best-known books. The Black Jacobins is still required reading on the Haitian Revolution and it has influenced several generations of scholars and activists. Perhaps one popular measure of how the book has seeped into popular consciousness is that it is mentioned in two separate episodes of British film director Steve McQueen's Small Axe series, as well as in novelist Zadie Smith's Swing Time. 

In The Black Jacobins, James emphasizes the dispossessed, in this case Haiti's enslaved Africans, who organized themselves into an army that established the independent state of Haiti in 1804. It was the first and only successful slave revolution in the history of humankind - defeating the superpowers of the eighteenth century: the English, Spanish, and ultimately the army of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Beyond a Boundary has been described as the best book ever to be written on sport. But true to his form, what makes Beyond a Boundary such a remarkable book is that it's not simply a book about the sport of cricket. It is also a semi-autobiographical philosophy that examines both the history and aesthetics of sport within an English, British colonial, and anti-colonial context.

James was not just a writer: Each one of his books was tied to his political commitments. Both World Revolution and The Black Jacobins were written while James was actively involved in the international socialist movement and Caribbean and African anti-colonial struggles. His politics carried him to Mexico in 1939, where he discussed socialism and the "Negro problem" with Leon Trotsky, the exiled leader of the Russian Revolution who was then a guest in the home of artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. 

Notes of Dialectics was the product of a dialogue about Marxism and socialism with his comrades Grace Lee (Boggs) and Raya Dunayevskaya. And as his personal letters reveal, it was also shaped by his personal and political relationship with his future wife and muse, Constance Webb. His study of Melville, Mariners, Renegades and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In was largely written while he was incarcerated on Ellis Island during the McCarthy communist witch-hunts.

Although James was a born intellectual, it was not until well into his sixties that he began teaching at academic institutions. He taught at Federal City College, as well as Northwestern and Howard Universities, throughout the 1970s and in the process became a kind of iconic elder statesman to a new generation that was fighting to change the world. What is perhaps less known is that James also mentored several young Caribbean activists and scholars in Canada during his sojourn here in 1966-1967. Many of whom would go on to play leading roles in events and political developments in Canada such as the Congress of Black Writers and the Sir George Williams student protest. 

An English Heritage Blue Plaque commemorating the life of Political activist C.L.R. James, hangs on a wall on Railton Road in Brixton on April 11, 2011 in London, England. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

James' last days were spent in London's Brixton district, the heart of England's Caribbean community. He continued to write as he observed world events through the television screen in his flat, while entertaining visitors such as Edward Said and Alice Walker. He died on May 31, 1989, months before the wall of totalitarianism in Eastern Europe came tumbling down, events that his writing had foreshadowed decades before.

Today, in a world of crass inequalities and economic crisis, the insights expressed in James' fiction, histories, literary criticism and his writing on sport, politics, and popular culture offer us greater insights into our world. James believed in the possibility of social change. His belief was rooted in a deep appreciation of historical precedence and politics, and the idea that politics should be led by and operate in the interests of, so-called "ordinary people". It is this enduring sense of human possibility and optimism in the midst of crisis, that is so crucial to our understanding of the human possibilities for social transformation in our time.

Guests in Episode One:

The late Carolyn Howe O'Fahey was a civil servant and the grand-niece of C.L.R. James.

Robert Hill is an emeritus professor at University of California, Los Angeles. He is one of the world's leading authorities on the life and work of C.L.R. James, Marcus Garvey, and the global influence of Pan-Africanism in the 20th century.

The late David Rayvern Allen was a producer and commentator for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and biographer of the legendary cricket broadcaster John Arlott.

The late Stuart Hall was an internationally renowned theorist, one of the architects of the discipline of cultural studies, and professor of sociology at the Open University in England.

Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto, award-winning political and cultural theorist, and author of numerous books, including The World We Want: Virtue, Vice, and the Good Citizen.

Guests in Episode Two:

Robert Hill, an  emeritus professor at University of California, Los Angeles. He is one of the world's leading authorities on the life and work of C.L.R. James, Marcus Garvey, and the global influence of Pan-Africanism in the 20th century.

Merle Hodge is the author of the critically acclaimed novel Crick, Crack, Monkey and a former professor of English at the University of the West Indies in St. Augustine, Trinidad.

Ken Ramchand is a writer, and emeritus professor of West Indian Literature at the University of the West Indies and one of the leading critics of Caribbean fiction.

Ken Wiwa was an Ogoni (Nigeria) writer and activist and son of the late Ogoni playwright and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and author of the acclaimed book, In the Name of My Father.

Carolyn Fick is a retired professor of history at Concordia University and author of the groundbreaking book, The Making of Haiti, the Saint-Domingue Revolution from Below. She is also a former student of C.L.R. James.

Paget Henry is a professor of sociology and Africana Studies at Brown University and author of Peripheral Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Antigua and the ground-breaking Caliban's Reason: Introducing Afro- Caribbean Philosophy.


* This episode was presented by IDEAS Contributor and Montreal writer David Austin. It was originally produced by Jane Lewis in 2005, and updated by IDEAS Producer Mary Lynk.

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