Tag Archives: clr james

Beyond A Boundary

imagesC.L.R. James ([1963] 1996) Serpent’s Tail, London

I enjoyed this immensely. I know just enough about cricket that it made some kind of sporting sense — though I confess that there’s was an entire chapter on Bradman and the body-line where I really had no idea what the hell James was talking about. Mostly though, James’s enthusiasm carried me along the crest of a lyrical use of words in unfamiliar contexts and meanings, descriptions of overs and strokes and other barely understood marks of poetry and genius. Growing up with three brothers made this a familiar sensation, and I let the minimally understood words carry me along to more familiar territory. Historiography, politics, colonialism and its legacies, ethics, the relationships between a people and their popular heroes, the relationships between popular heroes and the spirit of the time and place.

These things are beautifully explored, and impossible to sum up. Strange growing up in Arizona playing soccer I was inculcated with many of the same values of fair play, and it’s not a bad code to live by. Certainly conflicted, as James says, by where that code comes from and how it has been wielded.

This is partly why I appreciated his statement of the importance of remembering the past and understanding it in the present for both  colonised and the colonisers. It is not about catharsis, but about understanding how we have arrived where we are so that we can shape where we are going. The demand to forget the past so often comes from those who benefit, even if unconsciously, from such forgetfulness.

There are the people who, having enjoyed the profits and privileges of racialism for most of a lifetime, now that racialism is under fire and in retreat, profess a lofty scorn for it and are terribly pained when so much as refer to it in any shape or form. Their means have changed, not their ends, which are the same as they always were, to exploit racialism for their own comfort and convenience. They are a dying race and they will not be missed…

There is a less obvious fraternity. They not only understand, but sympathize. When you delve into your own history they see in it a search for catharsis! You are getting the poison out of your system.

Here he quotes T.S. Eliot: ‘This is the use of memory…liberation, From the future as well as the past.’

That is exactly what I do not think about memories. They do not liberate me in any sense except that once you have written down something your mind is ready to go further. I do not want to be liberated from them. I would consider liberation from them a grievous loss, irreparable. I am not recording tragedy. I do not wish to be liberated from that past and, above all, I do not wish to be liberated from its future. … I speculated and planned and schemed for the future; among other plans, how to lay racialism flat and keep stamping on it whenever it raises its head, and at the same time not to lose a sense of proportion — not at all easy. (59)

And this is a book about both the coloniser and the colonised, a look at what cricket has meant in England and how that has been exported to the West Indies to take on its own life and meaning. The connections between the two as they continue to meet. The playing out of emancipation through the politics of sport. A use of sport as a prism to understand national movements and hopes and anxieties. It feels more nuanced than a traditional economic base and ideological superstructure analysis, though it contains some of these elements. On the Victorian middle class, as it appropriated cricket to ‘convert it into a national institution’, James writes:

It was accumulating wealth…More than most newcomers it was raw. Unlike the French bourgeoisie of the eighteenth century, it had no need to create a new political and philosophical system to prepare itself for power. Its chief subjective quality was a moral unctuousness. This it wore like armour to justify its exploitation of common labour, and to protect itself from the loose and erratic lives of the aristocracy it was preparing to supplant… (161)

Seeing sport as culture:

The world-wide renaissance of organized games and sports as an integral part of modern civilization was on its way. Of this renaissance, the elevation of cricket and football to the place they soon held in English life was a part; historically speaking, the most important part…The only word I know for this is culture. The proof of its validity is its success, first of all at home and then almost as rapidly abroad, in the most diverse places and among peoples living lives which were poles removed from that whence it originally came. This signifies, as so often in any deeply national movement, that it contained elements of universality that went beyond the bounds of the originating nation. It is the only contribution of the English educational system of the nineteenth century to the general ideas of Western civilization (166).

It is, however, a universality this particular form of which came into being through certain economic changes. James describes that following the Factory Act of 1847, ‘there had come into existence an enormous urban public, proletarian and clerical lower middle class. They had won for themselves one great victory, freedom on Saturday afternoon. They were ‘waiting to be amused’ (170).

W.G. Grace became my hero (though later conversation with people who know about these things tore him down again, forcing me to make a separation between personal life and public — one that I am never ever comfortable with). I learned a new word as well:

Prolegomena is a tough word, but my purpose being what it is, it is the only one I can honestly use. It means the social, political, literary and other antecedents of some outstanding figure in the arts and sciences. Grasp the fact that a whole nation had prepared the way for him and you begin to see his stature as a national embodiment (170).

I think there is something important here about how we study history, how we understand people and movements:

But the passions and the forces which are embodied in great popular heroes — and W.G. was one of the greatest of popular heroes–these passions and forces do not yield their secrets to the antiquated instruments which the historians still cling to. Wilton St. Hill and Learie Constantine were more than makers of runs and takers of wickets to the people of Trinidad and Tobago. Who will write a biography of Sir Donald Bradman must be able to write a history of Australia in the same period. I have indicated what I think W.G. signified in the lives of the English people, not in what politicians did for them or poets wrote of them or what Carlyle and Ruskin preached to them, but in the lives that they themselves lived from day to day. We shall know more what men want and what they live by when we begin from what they do. They worshipped W.G. That is the fact. And I believe we have never given this fact the attention it deserves. Some day we shall. Of that I have no doubt. For the time being it is enough to say once more: he brought and made a secure place for pre-industrial England in the iron and steel of the Victorian Age (182).

All of this should shape how we work to change our future. Constantine, St Hill, Worrell become heroes as well. The struggle for Worrell as a Black captain clearly a most important one, though clearly a struggle that many on the more dogmatic left believed a waste of time.

I also quite loved the chapter on cricket as high art, the beautiful lines of the play and players themselves, the aesthetics. I chuckled at some of the homoerotic nature of classic descriptions of player form, style and beauty. But I would be the last to deny that this beauty is there.

I think the true skill and beauty of cricket is impossible to fully grasp for anyone who hasn’t followed it for a long time, and better yet played and played well. But its meaning, its greater cultural meaning is something we should work to understand.

Save

C.L.R. James on History and the Haitian Revolution

775985This is an in depth examination of Haiti and the splendour of its revolution, while at the same time James writes the history of places the way they should always be written, as playing a part on a world-wide stage, deeply influenced by and deeply influencing other countries. France’s wealthiest colony, San Domingo funded the French Revolution, it diverted a sizeable number of (and bested) British forces from the war against Napoleon for years, and in turn decimated the immense flotilla that Napoleon himself sent against it.

To my shame, and a history of willful ignoring by the world, I knew very little about the Haitian Revolution. I had never heard or read of the immense importance this small island played in ‘European affairs’. The other side? “The blacks were taking their part in the destruction of European feudalism begun by the French Revolution, and liberty and equality, the slogans of the revolution, meant far more to them than to any Frenchman.” [198] It makes the key point that to write of a colonial power in the absence of the influence of its colonies makes as little sense as to write of colonies without connecting that history to the struggles within the Colonial power. An insight still ignored by too many who split knowledge and importance, cause and effect, by geography. The slave trade and mercantilism connected the world and its events in ways rarely acknowledged with any depth.

James rarely rises above his text to make this point (or the others), he simply makes the connections in the way he writes history. This is a strength in terms of thinking through how history is studied, but frustrating also, as I wanted a bit more filling out of these more theoretical insights, and the ones that follow, but they must be pieced together.

He is a key thinker on race and colonialism, of course, and here we see him putting together how race was constructed, and it is clearly constructed in his account, and how race and class intersect. The first chapter is titled “The Property” followed by “The Owners”, beginning with the economic relationship of profit, but not ignoring the many factors at play in this complex society. On the class differences between the white settlers:

“This was the type for who race prejudice was more important than even the possession of slaves, of which they had few. The distinction between a white man and a man of colour was for them fundamental. It was their all. In defence of it they would bring down the whole of their world.” [34]

“The higher bureaucrats, cultivated Frenchmen, arrived in the island without prejudice; and looking for mass support used to help the Mulattoes a little. And mulattoes and big whites had a common bond — property. Once the revolution was well under way the big whites would have to choose between their allies of race and their allies of property. They would not hesitate long.” [44]

On the mulattoes and free blacks:

“In a slave society the mere possession of personal freedom is a valuable privilege … Behind all this elaborate tom-foolery of quarteron, sacatra and marabou, was the one dominating fact of San Domingo society — fear of the slaves” [38]

“The advantages of being white were so obvious that race prejudice against the Negroes permeated he minds of the Mulattoes who so bitterly resented the same thing from the whites [42-43]

Mulatto instability lies not in their blood but in their intermediate position in society. [207]

This was no question of colour, but crudely a question of class, for those blacks who were formerly free stuck to the Mulattoes. Persons of some substance and standing under the old regime, they looked upon the ex-slaves as essentially persons to be governed.” [166]

A sophisticated analysis of race and class and political expediency, the idea of whiteness as privilege and property, a tale of how racial categorisations and boundaries were devised and then cemented into place. So impressive. A final quote on race and revolution:

Political treachery is not a monopoly of the white race, and this abominable betrayal so soon after the insurrection shows that political leadership is a matter of programme, strategy and tactics, and not the colour of those who lead it, their oneness of origin with their people, nor the services they have rendered.” [106]

Unknown - NYPL Digital Gallery
Unknown – NYPL Digital Gallery

Of course, most of this book is about how Toussaint alone, ex-slave, genius, of inexhaustible physical stamina, and incarnation of the desire for freedom, could have led the struggle to end slavery.

Which leads into James’s thinking on revolution itself, and I suppose that’s where I break with him most. What I most fundamentally disagree with are statements like this, on Dessalines’ betrayal of a fellow commander to the French just before he rose up in rebellion:

“It was a treacherous crime, but it was not treachery to the revolution.” [346]

It’s the old question of ends and means of course, and so what I find most chilling is this combination of ends justifying the means with an emphasis put on individual leadership. But that’s always what I’ve found most chilling about Lenin and Trotsky.

This is activist history, which I much appreciate. I think it’s vital that radical history should interrogate what went wrong and what we can learn, which C.L.R. James does openly (again thinking through race as it intersects with class):

Criticism is not enough. What should Toussaint have done? A hundred and fifty years of history and the scientific study of revolution begun by Marx and Engels, and amplified by Lenin and Trotsky, justify us in pointing to an alternative course. [282]

It was in method and not in principle, that Toussaint failed. 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] … Whereas Lenin kept the party and the masses thoroughly aware of every step, and explained carefully the exact position of the bourgeois servants of the Workers’ State, Toussaint explained nothing, and allowed the masses to think that their old enemies were being favoured at their expense. … and to shoot Moise, the black, for the sake of the whites was more than an error, it was a crime.” [284]

Toussaint’s error in this description was that he lost touch with the masses, which was a tactical mistake. It was not his bid for power. James plays down the constitution that appointed Toussaint governor for life with the power to name his own successor with the curious phrase, “Constitutions are what they turn out to be…”

Jean-Jacques Dessalines
Jean-Jacques Dessalines

I suppose my own belief is that an individual will always go wrong, will always fail, will always make mistakes, will always be corrupted by power. This is a good portrait of a man who was undoubtedly most extraordinary, but I believe revolution has to be a collective activity to continue to be revolutionary. That seems to be just a political difference until you realise how little in this book there is about Dessalines or Moise or any of the other ex-slave leaders, what they thought and how they fought and how they worked together day in and day out with Toussaint (or not as the case was).

Of course, what I love about James is that he seems to be continuously interrogating his own orthodoxies and challenging his own statements, there’s a brilliant footnote on page 338 drawing parallels with a quote from George Lefebvre on the fact that we shall never know the real names of the leaders of the French Revolution, the ones who did most of the work and actually raised the masses far from the orations of the figureheads. James writes that “the tragedy of mass movements that they need and can only too rarely find adequate leadership.” [25], the question becomes what that leadership should look like and how it carries out its role.

My last caveat is just that James definitely seems to share some of the Western and white prejudice floating around, although more critical of it than most. He writes:

“It is probable that, looking at the wild hordes of blacks who surrounded him, his heart sank at the prospect of the war and the barbarism that would follow freedom…” [107]

Always he supports and rationalises Toussaint’s own defense, not to say courting, of the whites, his refusal to redistribute land or government position:

“It is Toussaint’s supreme merit that while he saw European
civilisation as a valuable and necessary thing, and strove to lay its foundations among his people, he never had the illusion that it conferred any moral superiority.” [271]

So again you see a very orthodox Marxist sense of civilisation as being European, the march of history in a material though not moral sense. The clear descriptions of not simply the amorality, but the true barbarism of the Europen slavo-owner, the stripping of that moral superiority is incredibly important however, and undeniably differentiates him from almost all other historians. I think there is plenty of places in the rest of the book where James arguably undercuts some of these same ideas on progress and civilisation as well to some extent.

A classic. Just a couple more choice quotes to end with, not because I necessarily agree with them, but because they are both punchy and provocative, and a final rumination on the character of Toussaint that I’m not quite sure I understand and am still pondering:

That calm confidence in its capacity to deceive is a mark of the mature ruling class. [294]

The rich are only defeated when running for their lives. [78]

But in a deeper sense the life and death are not truly tragic. Prometheus, Hamlet, Lear, Phedre, Ahab, assert what may be the permanent impulses of the human condition against the claims of organised society. They do this in the face of imminent or even certain destruction, and their defiance propels them to heights which make of their defeat a sacrifice which adds to our conception of human grandeur.

Toussaint is in a lesser category. His splendid powers do not rise but decline. Where formerly he was distinguished above all for his prompt and fearless estimate of whatever faced him, we shall see him…misjudging events and people, vacillating in principle…

The hamartia, the tragic flaw…was in Toussaint not a moral weakness. It was a specific error, a total miscalculation of the constituent events. [291]

Save