• 2017: Review of Matthieu Renault, CLR James

    2017: Review of Matthieu Renault, CLR James

    Originally commissioned by Revolutionary History, but not yet published.

    Matthieu Renault, CLR James: La vie révolutionnaire d’un « Platon noir », La Découverte, Paris, 2015, 227 pp., 19.50 euros.

    France was an important country for CLR James. His masterpiece, The Black Jacobins, showed the French Revolution as an event of international significance, and he was fascinated by the historians of the French Revolution – Guérin, whom he proposed to translate, but also Michelet and Lefebvre. He saw the general strike of 1968 as the most important uprising since July 1789.

    But paradoxically James has been little known in France. He was admired by Pierre Naville (who translated The Black Jacobins), and cooperated in the 1950s with the Socialisme ou Barbarie grouping. But there has been little wider interest, and it is only now that Matthieu Renault has produced the first book-length study of James in French.

    Renault gives a concise but comprehensive account of James’s life and work, from his childhood in Trinidad to his old age in Brixton (when, if the telephone rang, he would say: “Tell them I’m dead”.) He traces the various political organisations in which James was active in Britain and the USA, and presents his intellectual development through a detailed account of his books and many articles; he draws on the work of various English-language writers about James – Kent Worcester, Christian Høgsbjerg, Frank Rosengarten etc. The account is generally positive, drawing out James’s strengths, but there is no attempt to gloss over inconsistencies or gaps, and episodes such as James’s injudicious enthusiasm for Nkrumah are dealt with scrupulously.

    Renault even deals with James’s fascination with cricket, which must be something of a mystery to most French readers – although a mistranslation on page 51 shows that Renault doesn’t know the difference between a batsman and a bowler. As James showed in Beyond a Boundary, cricket was a means whereby British imperialism transmitted moral values to its colonial subjects. What James would have thought of the corrupt, immoral and brutal game that cricket has become in the twenty-first century we can only wonder, though he would doubtless have appreciated the irony of the way the Indian Premier League has become the revenge of the oppressed.

    Renault draws out one theme which runs through James’s work, which, if not actually a contradiction, is a tension which James never completely resolved, but which raised a number of important questions. Renault traces this back to two books which James wrote in the 1930s, World Revolution and The Black Jacobins. In World Revolution James presented the classic Trotskyist account of the Russian Revolution and its subsequent defeat by Stalinism. It is a “Eurocentric” narrative: all the major events take place in Europe, notably the failure of the German Revolution, although there is a chapter on China. But in The Black Jacobins James breaks with the Eurocentric narrative; his concern is to show that the revolt against slavery was not a sideshow, but that the Caribbean was at the very centre of world history.

    So we have two different approaches to history. On the one hand James always retained a very high regard for the European culture he had acquired during his schooldays; he loved the classics of English literature such as Thackeray. And when he became a Marxist he accepted the classical Marxist view which gave a key role to the working class of the industrialised countries of Europe.

    Yet at the same time James was concerned to put the oppressed of what came to be known as the “Third World” at the centre of history, to “rewrite the history of the world from the margins”. He wrote extensively about black revolt in Africa and the Caribbean, noting sourly that “the only place where black people did not revolt is in the pages of capitalist historians.”. In writing about the emancipation of slaves in the USA, James stressed that the black slaves were the agents of their own emancipation, though he also stressed the importance of progressive white forces. The revolutionary action of the black masses of the South played an important part in the victory of the North in the civil war. And this was a prefiguration of the history of the world. American blacks had made world history.

    This duality was never completely resolved, but left a number of problems – for example that of “backwardness” and uneven development – with which James continued to grapple throughout his life. Although in some ways James could be seen as one of the pioneers of what have now come to be known as “black studies”, James himself denied that there was any such thing as black studies, insisting that there was simply a world history in which black revolt had played a vital role. Likewise he was very sceptical about the notion of “African socialism”.

    Because James considered that Leninist organisation as practised in early twentieth-century Russia was not relevant to the modern world, he is often thought of as an “anti-Leninist” or a spontaneist. In fact he always remained a great admirer of Lenin in context, and continued to grapple with the form of organisation required in different historical situations; in considering modern Africa he tended to be rather overly sympathetic to the need for individual leaders, believing that an individual personality could embody the hopes of a whole continent.

    Questions of race and migration, and their roots in the history of French colonialism and its overthrow, are today at the centre of political debate in France. If Renault’s valuable book encourages a greater interest in James, the unresolved questions in his work may provoke new and useful research.

    Ian Birchall