“Men of action must cease being men of action to write history, which demands a certain tranquility,” wrote the great revolutionary, historian, and social critic C.L.R. James in September 1940. If one knows anything about James’s own astounding life as both a man of action and a producer of superb engaged histories, these words surprise. He always refused to relinquish praxis—a term that meant so much to radicals of his time—in favor of erudition, certainly not during the 1930s, the focus of this article.
Born Cyril Lionel Robert James in the British colony of Trinidad in January 1901, he is best known for his 1938 classic The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. That book has profoundly shaped the scholarship on the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), as well as the larger field of black history. It also deserves pride of place in the story of modern revolutionism.
For those unfamiliar with James’s life and work, The Black Jacobins was no isolated foray into how and why the oppressed revolt. The book followed a rapid and acute immersion in Marxist thought and politics. More than any other work, including Marx’s own writings, Leon Trotsky’s magnificent three-volume History of the Russian Revolution (1930) demonstrated to James the power of Marxist analysis. Of the book James later stated, “A hundred years of socialist thought and proletarian struggles have gone into the making of that book, the first of its kind. No one will ever be able to write like it again for generations.” James fashioned a powerful historical method from his studies of Marxism. His massive labors of research, thinking, and writing found fruition in the 1937 World Revolution 1917-1936: The Rise and Fall of the Communist International, a Trotskyist interpretation of the fate of the Bolshevik Revolution and critique of Stalinism.
James adapted the method he utilized in World Revolution to the struggles of black men and women—in Africa, the Caribbean, and the United States—since the eighteenth century to win social and political liberation. This approach to history entailed refuting the myth of “the docile Negro,” using a term for black people from that time that carried dignity. In his 1939 essay, “Revolution and the Negro,” James asserted, “The Negro’s revolutionary history is rich, inspiring, and unknown.” “The only place where Negroes did not revolt,” he explained, “is in the pages of capitalist historians. . . . It is not strange that the Negroes revolted. It would have been strange if they had not.” All the while, though, James the scholar had never wavered from involvement in the great challenges faced by the Left in the 1930s (the Great Depression, the threat of fascism, Stalin’s Show Trials, impending world war).
Opposing Fascist Italy’s Invasion and Occupation of Ethiopia
Before James left Trinidad and settled in Britain in 1932, he had already been deeply invested in the politics of race and colonialism. His The Case for West Indian Self Government was published in the United Kingdom in 1933 (it had appeared in Trinidad a year earlier). Through his friendship with fellow Trinidadian George Padmore, a Communist and editor for several years of The Negro Worker, James kept abreast of anti-colonial movements, particularly Pan-Africanism. In London (where he relocated in 1934), he moved in circles of intellectuals and activists from across colonized Africa (e.g. Egypt, Kenya, Sierra Leone). Once he wedded his opposition to imperialism to revolutionary Marxism—he joined the small Trotskyist movement in Britain in 1934 and became a member of the International Labor Party (ILP)—James possessed an incisive framework for approaching colonial questions.
James certainly needed this framework as the Mussolini dictatorship threatened the independence of Ethiopia, then more often called Abyssinia. Along with Liberia, the country had been the only African nation to successfully resist European dominance in the three decades after 1870. In 1896 Ethiopian ruler Menelik II had humiliated the Italians at the Battle of Adwa. Thus Fascist Italy not only coveted Ethiopia in order to expand its empire in North and East Africa but to find redemption for that defeat.
Italian and Ethiopian forces had clashed along the border between Italian Somaliland and Ethiopia. Meanwhile, between January and May 1935, Mussolini amassed a gigantic army in East Africa, totaling some 400,000 troops and 100,000 civilian workers. Having witnessed the League of Nations’ feeble reaction to Imperial Japan’s move into Manchuria in 1931, the dictator feared little opposition to his plans for expansion. James and his comrades had to act quickly.
Beyond Ethiopia’s fragile freedom from European control, it held special significance for many black intellectuals. A truly ancient civilization existed there, with a long connection to the history of Christianity (Ezana, ruler of the Kingdom of Aksum, had converted the country to the Christian faith in the fourth century CE). The autocratic Emperor Haile Selassie, officially in power since 1930, maintained the traditional claim that Ethiopia’s Solomonic Dynasty traced its ancestry back to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. This set of beliefs and institutions would have hardly won over a Marxist like James, though, who demanded the overthrow of ruling classes everywhere.
As Robin D.G. Kelley has emphasized, when it came to Ethiopia in these years, “black leftists discussed a mountainous peasant region in the Horn of Africa ruled by a dying monarchy that did not believe in land reform. As one of the few regions on earth where slavery persisted well into the early 1930s, Ethiopia was hardly a land of milk and honey.” Yet James and others on the Left understood that Fascism would be even worse. At the same time they certainly realized they could not depend on the League of Nations and the states that propped it up.
C.L.R. James shared Vladimir Lenin’s uncompromising conviction that the League of Nations, only 15 years old in 1935, was nothing but a “thieves’ kitchen.” Dominated by France and Britain, the two western European imperialist powers, the League would ultimately carry out their wishes. Conservative Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin (back in office in early June) and French Prime Minister Pierre Laval (later executed for his role in the Vichy regime) might protest, invoke the notion of “collective security,” call for arbitration, and demand League sanctions, but they would not risk war with Italy over Ethiopia. James’s radicalism served him well in this crisis.
Due to Christian Høgsbjerg’s invaluable transcriptions and commentaries, we can trace James in 1935-36 through his publications. In 1935, he participated in the establishment of the International African Friends of Abyssinia (IAFA). Among the impressive group who joined him in the IAFA was Jomo Kenyatta, later prime minister and president of Kenya.
Once the Italian government initiated military action against Haile Selassie in early October 1935, James rightly denounced the treacherous actions of the British and French governments. Their diplomacy and their protests had achieved nil. The sanctions policy imposed as a response by the League of Nations did not exclude the sale to Italy of oil, steel, and coal! James understood all too well that Mussolini, whom he relished insulting as “Musso the Monkey,” saw his vision for further conquest in the Horn of Africa as no different from what France and Britain had done during the previous century. However, James did bemoan the lack of recognition of this reality by the working classes in western Europe. “It is a great pity that the great masses of workers do not view the pronouncements of Imperialists with as much understanding as other Imperialists do!”
Throughout late 1935 and the first half of 1936, James and the ILP demanded mass, popular resistance to Italy's war outside of the control of political, military, and business elites. He urged workers, peasants, and their allies to arm themselves and combat the Fascists. Why trust the bloc of politicians, diplomats, capitalists, and generals? These lines, penned by James just as the war against Ethiopia started, show just what he had in mind: “Workers of Europe, peasants and workers of Africa and India, sufferers from imperialism, all anxious to help the Ethiopian people, organize yourselves independently and by your own sanctions, the use of your own power, assist the Ethiopian people. Their struggle is only now beginning.”
James considered volunteering to fight in Ethiopia, as he would during the subsequent Revolution and Civil War in Spain. As he explained in the ILP publication New Leader, he wished to enlist in the Ethiopian Army. There he could “make contact not only with the Abyssinian masses and other Africans, but in the ranks with them I would have had the best possible opportunity of putting across the International Socialist cause.” The depth of his internationalism could not be missed when he also recalled his hope of disseminating anti-Fascist propaganda within the Italian ranks. Urged, though, to concentrate on his work within the IAFA, James remained in the UK. He immediately broke with the IAFA, however, when the organization decided to throw its weight behind the League of Nations’ policy of sanctions.
To James’s great chagrin, the Stalin regime, the Communist International (Comintern), and the various Communist parties also swung behind the policies of collective security and sanctions. He knew Stalin feared Hitler and wanted support from France and Czechoslovakia in case of war with Germany. This accommodationist move, James understood, merely reinforced the counterrevolutionary turn underway in the Soviet Union. He especially detested the servility of the Communist organizations in Europe, who did not flinch from getting behind whatever policy emanated from Moscow. “But the ILP,” James swore, “will remain true to the principles of Lenin.” As a radical alternative, James called for a truly independent, international workers’ movement.
In early December 1935, the Hoare-Laval Plan (Samuel Hoare was British Foreign Secretary) was leaked to the press in the UK and France. This proposal to mollify Mussolini, then accelerating his Ethiopian campaign, was utterly disgraceful and reactionary. Ethiopia would cede territory to Italy and the remainder of the country would be recognized as an Italian sphere of influence. All Haile Selassie would get was a corridor to the sea, a concession quickly dubbed a “corridor for camels” by commentators. The intransigent anti-imperialism of James was confirmed. He condemned the “dismemberment” of Ethiopia and insisted, “If Abyssinia is to be saved, it will be by her own exertions and the help of the International working class.”
The speeches and articles James issued during these months summoned people to do far more than resist Mussolini. “Let us fight against not only Italian imperialism,” he declared, “but the other robbers and oppressors, French and British imperialism.” In keeping with Lenin’s 1916 observation that imperialism was the highest and last stage of capitalism, James called for its extirpation root and branch. Ultimately, supplanting the sham that was the League of Nations with a “genuine League, based on mutual cooperation and not on Imperialist plunder,” could only come about through the revolutionary establishment of “Socialist Republics.” In the following years, James would explore, more systematically, the history of uprisings against slavery, against empire, and against capitalism.
During the spring of 1936, James undertook a speaking tour of England, South Wales, Ireland, and Scotland denouncing Fascist Italy’s invasion and occupation of Ethiopia. By this point, Mussolini’s military had made extensive use of poison gas against soldiers and civilians. Addis Ababa, the capital, fell in early May of that year. Resistance, however, did not completely collapse. The Ethiopian people fought on after Haile Selassie fled to England.
Toward a Revolutionary History
The experience of direct, sustained agitation for the Ethiopian cause exerted a profound impact on James. It sharpened his already considerable gifts for oratory and honed his skills as a Marxist polemicist. Soon he engaged in far-reaching inquiry into the past.
First, James examined the degeneration of the Bolshevik Revolution after Lenin’s death in 1924, while defending Trotsky, the champion of the theory of “Permanent Revolution,” as Red October’s great inheritor. In April 1939, two years after the publication of World Revolution and his immigration to the United States, he traveled to Mexico to meet with Trotsky, a guest of the Cardenas government, for discussions about the prospects for revolutionary politics.
Increasingly, James concentrated his energies on the study of the struggles of blacks on both sides of the Atlantic to gain freedom, equality, and happiness. In a review of Padmore’s How Britain Rules Africa, he proclaimed, “Africans must win their own freedom. Nobody will win it for them. They need cooperation, but that cooperation must be with the revolutionary movement in Europe and Asia. There is no other way out.” For James, the decisive instance of such a freedom struggle was the Haitian Revolution, the only successful slave uprising enacted by the enslaved themselves.
While in England, he wrote a three-act play about Toussaint L’Ouverture, one of the key leaders of the revolution. With Paul Robeson in the role of L’Ouverture, Toussaint L’Ouverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History premiered in London in April 1936, just as the war in Ethiopia reached its nadir. The play previewed an impressive monograph on the subject. Two years later, The Black Jacobins, a history of what he termed “the first great revolution of black people,” was released, eventually gaining widespread and lasting acclaim. Brilliantly, James connected the uprising in the French colony to the course of the revolution in France.
In a feat of remarkable productivity, James quickly followed that work with A History of Negro Revolt. The latter included critical analyses of American abolitionism (James’s commentaries on the failure of Reconstruction are very perceptive), both tribal uprisings and worker mobilizations and strikes on the African continent (James was particularly drawn to developments in South Africa), the state of radical politics in the West Indies, and the Marcus Garvey phenomenon in the United States. The book reiterated James’s belief that black liberation would contribute immeasurably to the transition from capitalism to socialism.
This path of critical historical research led C.L.R. James to author some of the most important works of history-writing in the twentieth century, works still studied today. He showed that one did not need tranquility to produce powerful history.
Buhle, Paul. C.L.R. James: The Artist as Revolutionary. New and expanded edition. London: Verso, 2017.
Høgsbjerg, Christian. C.L.R. James in Imperial Britain. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014.