Political Discourse - Theories of Colonisation and Postcolonisation
C.L.R. James: an Introduction
Author of The Black Jacobins (1938), Breaking a Boundary (1963), and volumes of essays involving class and race antagonism, West Indian self-determination, cricket, Marxism, and aesthetics, C.L.R. James passed away in May, 1989 -- a milestone year that witnessed the fall of the cold war in Berlin, the "fatwah" death threat levelled upon Salman Rushdie by the Ayatollah Komeini, the Tiananmen Square student-uprising, and the collapse of Communist regimes in Warsaw, Prague, and Budapest. James' contributions to the task of Third World liberation (ranging from the American "negro question" to the problem of "dialectical materialism" in the writings of Lenin and Trotsky) perhaps finally saw their ambitions met in that year, and perhaps only since then has James met the critical attention and approbation that he has long deserved.
James' materialist intervention into the issues of civil rights, race, class, Communism, cultural production and reception positions him at the center of the leading Marxist interpretors of colonialism and anticolonial struggle in the twentieth century. James' encyclopedeic knowledge of literature, cricket, and politics enabled him to write a prolific body of work over his lengthy career--works including the drama Toussaint Louverture, the novel Minty Alley, and a Trotskyist analysis of the Third International entitled World Revolution. Although James was ideologically to part ways with Trotsky the late 1940's, he continued to insist upon a class analysis of race and culture from the extreme left.
In The Black Jacobins, James describes the San Domingo slave revolt (the "Haitian Revolution") of 1791-1803. Largely a critical portrait of the uprising's leader, Toussaint Louverture, the book is James' first published work--one that many have hailed as a blueprint to all future Third World proletarian revolutionary work. James' historical account of what he terms "the only successful slave revolt in history" raises important questions concerning the heterogeneity of resistance movements, intellectualism and leadership, the opposition of singularity and collectivity, and the complex ambitions and complicities of the colonial bourgeoisie.
In Breaking a Boundary, James offers a quasi-autobiographical depiction of his experiences with cricket--a sport inextricably linked with the socio-historical context of British imperialism that shaped Trinidadian history. James portrays cricket at once as an artform and an instrument of social reform, and takes great care to explain the complicated process whereby cricket (ostensibly a residue of British colonial rule) has been reappropriated as a means of resistance. Perhaps more than any other of James' works, this volume demonstrates the breadth of James capacity for cultural criticism. Willing to grant cricket and calypso the same political resonance as theatre and literature, James stands at variance with many Eurocentric postrstructuralist thinkers with differing attitudes towards culture low and high.
"Beyond a Boundary": Cricket and West Indian Self-Determination
Both an autobiographical memoir of his Trinidadian upbringing and a social-historical appraisal of West-Indian cricket, C.L.R. James' momentous Beyond a Boundary (1963) foregrounds cricket not only at the center of West Indian cultural practices but also at the nexus of colonial rule and class antagonism that has constructed Trinidad's precarious national identity.
Cricket's political resonance, as the book's title suggests, extends beyond the "boundary" of the cricket pitch and, moreover, interrogates the tenuous boundaries that separate culture from politics, race from class, high culture from low. As James argues in the preface, "It [the book] poses the question 'What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?'" Deeply implicated in the workings of intra- and international politics, Cricket is fundamentally unthinkable outside of the context of British colonial rule--much in the same way that West Indian colonialism and decolonization are unthinkable without cricket.
The opposition of batsman and bowler serves as a metonym for the broader antagonism between not only colonizer and colonized, but between leader and led, between nation and individual, and between competing Trinidadian class and race factions. Those "who only cricket know" forget that cricket (both a legacy of British imperialism and a means of resistance against it) is an instrument of power, political ideology, and social transformation. In other words, much like Edward Said's notion of contrapuntalism, James insists upon the inextricability or simultaneity of culture and politics:
I haven't the slightest doubt that the clash of race, caste and class did not ****** but stimulated West Indian cricket. I am equally certain that in those years social and political passions, denied normal outlets, expressed themselves so fiercely in cricket (and other games) precisely because they were games. Her began my personal calvary. The British tradition soaked deep into me was that when you entered the sporting arena you left behind you the sordid compromises of everyday existence. Yet for us to do that we would have had to divest ourselves of our skins. From the moment I had to decide which club I would join the constrast between the ideal and the real fascinated me and tore at my insides. Nor could the local population see it otherwise. The class and racial rivalries were too intense. They could be fought out without violence or much lost except pride and honor. Thus the cricket field was a stage on which seleced individuals played representative roles which were charged with social significance. (66)
What do James' comments about "British tradition" reveal in terms of his attitude towards cricket as a British art-form that must be co-opted and reappropriated in order to be a meaningful instrument of anticolonial resistance? What's at issue here is James' complicated balancing of complicity and resistance; that is, in order to turn a residual colonial practice into a subversive anti-colonial one, the cultural practice must first be learned and assimilated according to the terms of the dominant colonial order. Is James, in other words, complicit in the workings of colonial oppression since his only mode of resistance is itself a colonial cultural practice? Does James concede too much by privileging cricket over indigenous cultural practices? Does cricket merely re-inscribe colonized subjects within the "boundaries" of colonial rule?
"Beyond a Boundary": the Aesthetics of Resistance
The problem with cricket (or perhaps the problem with America), as Neil Lazarus argues in his "Cricket and National Culture in the Writings of C.L.R. James," is that although C.L.R. James' materialist interpretations of culture and politics are deeply rooted in his fascination with cricket, scarcely any Americans understand cricket well enough for James' insights to carry much meaning. As opposed to baseball, say, Cricket is a rural, expansive, pre-modern game that resists the temporal rhythms and spatial limits of work-time capital. Whereas baseball emerged in America alongside the industrial revolution, Cricket is distinct insofar as its origins are primarily rural, pre-Victorian, and of the privileged land-owning class.
Drawing upon the cricket experiences of Learie Constantine, W.G. Grace [who James claims "built a social organization" (173)], and himself, James demonstrates two guiding points: 1) that cricket is an artform worthy of the "classical" status given opera, theatre, or painting, and 2) that cricket's aesthetics enact a stylization of social resistance against British colonialism.
James' first point of contention, as Neil Lazarus notes, stands in stark contrast to the perhaps Eurocentric suggestion of T.W. Adorno that art is "autonomous" from the commonplace banality of everyday cultural practices. By contrast, James would argue that cricket's commonplaceness and accessibility are in fact the determining factors in its aesthetic and political interest. Whereas critics like Edward Said are primarily bibliocentric (focussing on canonical Western literature), James is a diverse cultural critic sensitive to the nuances of music, sports, and low-culture productions.
"Cricket," as James argues, "is first and foremost a dramatic spectacle. It belongs with the theatre, ballet, opera and the dance" (196). In a chapter entitled "What is Art?", James juxtaposes cricket with ancient Greek sporting rites in order to emphasize the Marxian implications of cricket's aspirations towards "teamwork." As Neil Lazarus points out, James suggests that cricket is not "like" art, but rather "is" art. In the passages below, James demonstrates the nuanced aesthetics whereby the batsman's posture and stroke become a mode of social representation. James recalls the "cutting" (a particular style of batting) of Arthur Jones, and compares it to the famous accounts of William Beldham's "cutting" a century earlier:
My second landmark was not a person but a stroke, and the maker of it was Arthur Jones. He was a brownish Negro, a medium-sized man, who walked with quick steps and active shoulders. He had a pair of restless, aggressive eyes, talked quickly and even stammered a little. He wore a white cloth hat when batting, and he used to cut. How he used to cut! I have watched county cricket for weeks on end and seen whole Test matches without seeing one cut such as Jones used to make, and for years whenever I saw one I murmured to myself, 'Arthur Jones!" (5)
There at the centre of all this was William Beldham and his cut...I said earlier that the second landmark in my cricketing life was a stroke--and I mean just that--one single stroke. (6)
The stylistic specificity of "cutting" is of some relevance here; a cut is a difficult stroke in which the batsman strikes across the underside of the ball so that it angles off to the vacant spaces behind the batsman. The point is that the shot is deliberately difficult--a gesture of mastery that serves little if any practical purpose. To James, the "cut" signifies a belligerant affront to the exigencies of colonial rule--a stylization of emancipatory ambitions. To "play it safe" is unthinkable to James, who considered such play the "welfare state of mind" that conceded liberatory ambitions to British Keynesian economic rhythms. In other words, what makes cricket such a vital political instrument to James is its aesthetics, and not, for instance, an emphasis on winning or losing.
How might cricket (or sports in general) serve as a metaphor for political antagonism in postcolonial literature? Notice how James describes politics in terms of cricket metaphor, and cricket in terms of political metaphor. Where many authors would make use of sexual imagery, James instead portrays cricket as an instrument of revolution!
Again, what's most striking is the trans-historical value James accords a sport--a gesture towards universalism that many argue is James' weak point. Does James fail under the criteria of historical specificity? And how does he compare to other anticolonial writers such as Frantz Fanon? James (or "Nello," as his admirers address him) frequently illustrates the solutions to contemporary social problems using ideas drawn from classical or renaissance literature. Does this suggest a historical continuity between disparate periods that simply doesn't exist?
The Black Jacobins: a Class Analysis of Revolution
The Black Jacobins, an historical account of the San Domingo Revolution of 1791-1803 and its interrelation with the French Revolution in 1789, is above all a narrative of liberation that documents the revolutionary potential of proletarian masses. Although James is careful to point out the racial heterogeneity of the San Domingo population--distinguishing, for example, between mulattoes, small whites, big whites, and maritime bourgeoisie--he places greater emphasis on the antagonisms of class that provided the socio-economic impetus for revolution:
In the following passage, James adopts the materialist (Marxist) position that questions of class precede and overshadow questions of race, gender, or nation:
The race question is subsidiary to the class question in politics, and to think of imperialism in terms of race is disastrous. But to neglect the racial factor as merely incidental is an error only less grave than to make it fundamental. (283)
James' central argument, in other words, is that the predicament of colonial oppression is not so much a situation of racial oppression but of class antagonism or opposition--even among classes within the colonized body politic. San Domingo--a crucial colony because of its sugar industry--became the site of class conflict in one sense because the maritime bourgeois (a class, not race distinction) saw the benefits of a complicity with the French bourgeoisie, whereas the masses obviously did not. Other critics, such as Paul Gilroy, have suggested quite the opposite--that race is in fact a fundamental factor of colonial oppression. Notice also that James somewhat qualifies the statement above by granting race a marginal relevance in the workings of empire: "to neglect the racial factor as merely incidental is an error only less grave than to make it fundamental." What are some possible limitations of James' emphasis on class? Does he naively assume allegiences across race within the proletariat? Is his mention of race merely gestural, tokenistic, perfunctory?
Compare also James' thoughts on revolutionary leadership to those of Frantz Fanon. James perhaps replaces Fanon's oversimplified opposition of "colonizer" and "colonized" with the more nuanced relationship between leader and led. If If James concedes the importance of British education to colonized subjects (not least himself), then in The Black Jacobins he portrays Toussaint Louverture's complicated dependence upon colonial erudition--a dependence, according to James, that led to Louverture's eventual betrayal of the San Domingo proletariat towards the revolution's end. Much in the same way that Frantz Fanon argues in The Wretched of the Earth that colonial oppression is the fault of an overly opportunist colonized bourgeoisie (middle class), James argues that Louverture fell pray to the lures of bourgeois intellectualism once the lion's share of insurgence was under way. In the passage below, James describes the gaps between leader and led (between intellectualism and masses) that perhaps led to Toussaint's demise:
Between Toussaint and his people there was no fundamental difference of outlook or of aim. Knowing the race question for the political and social question that it was, he tried to deal with it in a purely political and social way. It was a grave error. Lenin in his thesis to the Second Congress of the Communist International warned the white revolutionaries--a warning they badly need--that such has been the effect of the policy of imperialism on the relationship between advanced and backward peoples that European Communists will have to make wide concessions to natives of colonial countries in order to overcome the justified prejudice which these feel toward all classes in the oppressing countries. toussaint, as his power grew, forgot that. He ignored the black labourers, bewildered them at the very moment that he needed them most, and to bewilder the masses is to strike the deadliest of blows at the revolution. (239-240).
Dialectical Contradiction and the "Negro Question"
Briefly, the idea is this, that the Negro is "nationalist" to the heart and is perfectly right to be. His racism, his nationalism, are a necessary means of giving him strength, self-respect, and organization in order to fight for integration into American society. It is a perfect example of dialectical contradiction. (xxvi)
Thus, side by side with his increasing integration into production which becomes more and more a social process, the Negro becomes more than ever conscious of his exclusion from democratic privileges as a separate social group in the community. This dual movement is the key to the Marxist analysis of the Negro question in the U.S.A. (64)
In the passages above from C.L.R. James on the 'Negro Question,' James examines the "dialectical contradiction" and paradoxical "dual-movement" that characterize the Negro Movement's simultaneous integration and exclusion "on the road to the proletariat." Although in many ways James' "revolutionary answer" itself foregrounds the incompatibility of socialism and the Negro Movement, James' essay "Dialectical Materialism and the Fate of Humanity" (collected in Anna Grimshaw's edition of The C.L.R. James Reader, 1947) points toward the guiding Marxian principles that underwrite and somewhat justify James' advocacy of a proletariat revolutionary model.
How does James understand Marx and Hegel's notion of the "dialectic" in the context of the "Negro Question"? The first excerpt from a letter to Constance Webb emphasizes the ironic predicament (the "double-consciousness," so at least Du Bois might argue) of African-Americans whose integration into American society presupposes a "nationalist" visibility that ultimately stigmatizes or separates the Negro Movement from the social systems it enters. Notice how James perhaps facetiously valorizes "racism" (which he terms "black chauvinism" elsewhere--a sort of racial or racialized consciousness) as a necessary component of black integration.
James' discussion of "nationalism" frames a curious tautology of integration and exclusion. On one hand, the Negro Movement's integration into American society ironically presupposes a certain degree of "black chauvinism"-a mode of critiquing white America so as to emphasize the differences between races. On the other hand, by achieving "organization" sufficient to resist American capitalism, the Negro Movement in fact gains entry into (perhaps becomes complicit with) the same social systems that deny its agency.
James' comments on nationalism interrogate the scope of the term "nation" itself. Much as his notes on the Russian Revolution in "Stalin and Socialism" 1937) emphasize the debate between national and international socialization of labor, James' notion of "dialectical contradiction" seems especially sensitive to the Negro Movement's geographic scope-or rather the way in which tacit political and racial allegiances constitute "nations" that perhaps replace ostensible, geographic national boundaries.
But how can "blacks in the west" (as Gilroy has it) achieve a "national" collective subjectivity or agency when their displacement in the west circumscribes them within the "national" limits of American capitalism? Last Wednesday, for example, I tried to explain how James' ambivalence towards the NAACP indicates the paradoxical integration/exclusion of "nationalist" collectives. James characterizes the NAACP's growing membership as "one of the surest signs of the insoluble social crisis in the United States" (48). In other words, James suggests a mutual (and inverse) correlation between the NAACP's visibility and the degradation of blacks whose conditions it seeks to ameliorate. James perhaps dismisses the NAACP's potential for revolution because its visibility paradoxically attests to black exclusion and degradation.
The second passage above from "The Historical Development of the Negroes in American Society" (1943) contextualizes the "dialectical contradiction" within the field of "production." Here James' "dialectical contradiction" involves the union of white and black laborers and the subsequent exclusion of the Negro's "democratic privileges." Initially, it seems our responsibility to problematize James' assumption of inevitable and successful alliances across race within the utopic proletariat space he advocates. Can we characterize James' privileging of class concerns over those of race and his faith in working-class solidarity as naive and universalist-instances in which James "leaps out of history," as Paul Buhle quipped?
James' revolutionary model acknowledges no space for black autonomy and that James' numerous assertions otherwise function merely as stategic, perfunctory gestures in the name of Marxist propaganda (see 11, 80, 139). Whereas James assumes alliances across race within the proletariat, he fails to consider alliances across class within the Negro Movement-characterizing all blacks as "proletarian or semi proletarian" (71) and making only scant mention of any possibility of complicity between petty-bourgeois blacks and the black proletariat (84). The passage continues James' dubious notion of "community." Again, what is the scope of James' proletariat community in terms of "nationhood" and its intersection with race, class, and political affiliation? Why must the community or collectivity of workers precede a community predicated upon race? The answer to this question, it seems, rests upon the centrality of class to a transformation of capitalist society. What's telling is Marx's characterization of socialism's inevitability and it's ironic "dialectical" dependence upon capitalism's internal contradictions. It's not that James confuses the dialectic; the dialectic is inherently contradictory.
The "Master-Slave Dialectic" and the "Negro Question"
The dialectic teaches that in all forms of society we have known, the increasing development of material wealth brings with it the increasing degradation of the large mass of humanity...Thus it is that the moment when the world system of capitalism has demonstrated the greatest productive powers in history is exactly the period when barbarism threatens to engulf the whole of society. (C.L.R. James Reader 155)
The rise of capital engenders a corresponding rise in the "degradation" of the labor force-the same labor force that makes such capital possible. Although in terms of Hegel's "thesis, antithesis, synthesis" dialectical model the exigencies of capital appear antithetical to the condition of exploited laborers, in fact both capital and labor share a mutual dependence. Capital for the most part occupies a position of dominance, of course, but only insofar as that position is legitimated by the "barbarism" of a downtrodden working-class. The debasement of laborers invests in them a potential for revolution-the agency to "negate" capitalist systems that would suppress or "negate" them in turn. The "quantity" of labor and capital rise simultaneously, leading eventually to revolution in which "quantity" changes to "quality"; as I (mis?)understand it, the revolution redefines the "quality" of the relationship between capital and labor (155-6). I'm over-simplifying terribly, I'm afraid, and of course James has much more to say about the "logical contradiction" between the "concrete and abstract," the causal relationship between production and politics, the role of the state, intellectualism, etc. But how do Hegel and Marx bear upon James' plans for the black proletariat in the United States? In the following passages, James outlines the negro proletariat's imperative to seize the means of production/relations of production that shape American industry:
Such is the proletarian composition of the Negro people, so hostile are they to existing social order because of the special degradation to which it subjections them, that the political organization which knows how to utilize their preoccupation with their democratic right can find ample ways and means for carrying on that socialistic propaganda which must always be the climax of revolutionary effort, particularly in this period. (85)
In the United States social revolution is impossible without the independent mass struggles of the Negroes, whatever the prejudices, the reactionary fantasies, the weaknesses and errors of these struggles. (73)
In the passages above, James' seems compelled by the hostility, "special degradation," and "subjection" and the black proletariat. And yet "subjection" ironically is the very condition that renders the black proletariat a potentially "militant" revolutionary collective that may ultimately lead the rest of the proletariat to the "climax of revolutionary effort." As James says in the second passage, the working class in America will fail to amount any revolutionary project without harnessing the political energy within the "independent mass struggles of the Negroes." Again, as I suppose Marx would argue, the "contradictions" of capitalism don't impede socialist revolution but create the conditions for its inevitability. Look again at the passages with which I started (xxvi, 64). The "exclusion" of the Negro Movement may be unfortunate, but such material abjection ironically equips the black proletariat with the necessary impetus to "negate" American capitalism. It's as if James argues that the black proletariat exists at a level of degradation exceeding even the white proletariat, and this is precisely its strength!
One way of understanding the contradictory position of the black proletariat amidst the broader working class is in terms of Hegel's master-slave dialectic. As I understand it, the slave occupies a position of subordinance but ironically shares in some of the master's power because the master's position of dominance presupposes the slave's position of debasement. In other words, the binary between master and slave is unstable. The slave assumes agency insofar as the master depends upon him to legitimate his dominant status. The Marxian understanding of the slave rests upon his ability to assume control of the means of production, to which, in the existing regime, he is subordinated. Of course the master-slave scenario particularly befits the predicament of black slaves in America. I suggest James seeks to cultivate the black proletariat's "defiance from abjection" (a snippet I've re-appropriating from queer theory). The Negro Movement, more than any other constituent of the proletariat, has endured degradation enough to "hate properly" the tradition of American Capitalism.