“I denounce European colonialism”, wrote CLR James in 1980, “but I respect the learning and profound discoveries of Western civilisation.” A Marxist revolutionary and Pan-Africanist, a historian and novelist, an icon of black liberation and die-hard cricket fan, a classicist and lover of popular culture, Cyril Lionel Roberts James, described by V.S Naipaul as “the master of all topics”, was one of the great (yet grossly underrated) intellectuals of the 20th century.
He was one of the few Leftist intellectuals – as Christopher Hitchens once said about George Orwell – who was simultaneously on the right side of the three major questions of the 20th century: Fascism, Stalinism and Imperialism. But today his praise for ‘Western culture’ would probably be dismissed as a slightly embarrassing residue of a barely concealed ‘Eurocentrism”’
Sophie Zhang in a recent column for Varsity entitled “Not all literature is ‘universal’ – nor does it have to be”, writes that:
“The study of English Literature… has often centred around texts that claim to explore ‘universal’ themes and experiences. Yet what such curricula fail to recognise is that in glorifying the universal, we neglect the particular, because to focus on the ‘Western’ canon would be to ‘to centre whiteness and continually place non-white voices on the margins'”.
Implicit in this view is that only “whiteness” could have access to the universal, and those outside of “whiteness” are intrinsically on the margins, and their views are necessarily “particular”.
Similarly, James’s admiration for Western culture and the Western canon is something many black radicals, who otherwise admire James for his opposition to colonialism, struggle to understand about him. It is rather fashionable, and almost expected, that to be a ‘proper’ black radical today is to be hostile to all that is designated as Western; it is to indiscriminately dismiss the Enlightenment as “white” and “racist”, and disparage the Western canon as not being “relevant” to black people.
James, though, was, to his core, a radical humanist who believed in the collective power of human beings to transform society and be masters of their own future. He held this fundamental principle throughout his life, above any narrow characteristic such as race, ethnicity, or nationality. While James opposed dogmatic, class-reductionist forms of Marxism that didn’t take into account the importance of racist oppression, or were indifferent to the specific struggles of black people for their freedom, he had no time whatsoever for half-baked romantic notions of ‘negritude’, or essentialist black nationalism.
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James was strongly anti-imperialist, yet he wasn’t anti-Western (a distinction that often gets lost these days), and was one of the few radical Leftists who talked of Western civilisation unironically, without “scare quotes”. James himself, in a 1969 essay called Discovering Literature in Trinidad, was explicit about the influence of ‘Western civilisation’ on his outlook:
“I didn’t learn literature from the mango tree, or bathing on the shore and getting the sun of colonial countries; I set out to master the literature, philosophy and ideas of Western civilisation. That is where I have come from and I would not pretend to be anything else.”
He was, as Farrukh Dhondy observed in his biography, “the only intellectual of the black diaspora to unequivocally espouse and embrace the intellectual, artistic and socio-political culture of Europe”. For James, the emancipation of the black mind would come from embracing the works of “dead white men” such as Socrates, Sophocles, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Thackeray and Dickens, as much as the works of W.E.B. Du Bois, Aime Cesairé, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison.
He believed the European canon provided black people with a means of empowering themselves both culturally and intellectually, to broaden their imagination, to liberate them from the tyranny of geography and race, and help them transcend their particularity and enter into a universal conversation across colour lines, based on a shared humanity.
James was once asked, “Should Shakespeare and Rembrandt and Beethoven matter to Caribbean people?”, and replied:
“The Caribbean people are people, and Shakespeare, Rembrandt and Beethoven should matter to all people living in the world today, and who are able by means of their language, or by means of information and communication to understand or get some insight into what Shakespeare and Beethoven mean. I don’t like that question at all… if it means that Caribbean writers should be aware that there are emphases in their writing that we owe to non-European, non-Shakespearean roots, and the past in music which is not Beethoven, that I agree. But… fundamentally we are a people whose literary and aesthetic past is rooted in Western European civilisation.”
This legacy is important for us today, because James understood that the Enlightenment, though conceived and initiated (for historical reasons, not genetic ones) mainly by privileged white European men, is the common property of all of humanity.
Indeed, it was the struggle of those who were initially excluded, like black people, against a background of colonial domination and racial subordination that brought the seemingly abstract Enlightenment ideals of liberty and equality closer to concrete reality; the Haitian revolution, which he documented so majestically in The Black Jacobins, is an embodiment of this struggle. What the French started in 1789, the Haitians completed in 1804. For James, then, the Enlightenment, and the struggle to complete it, was and still is a global, and hence a universal, project.
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Furthermore, James recognised – as a faithful believer in the materialist conception of history – that “the race question is subsidiary to the class question in politics” and that to “think of imperialism in terms of race is disastrous”. At a time when there is intense debate on the Left around identity politics and “race v class”, this statement may be uncomfortable for some who may misinterpret and mischaracterise it as “class reductionist”.
Not so, as James goes on to say: “But to neglect the racial factor as merely incidental is an error only less grave than to make it fundamental.” In fact, James even argued that in the United States that black Americans were a kind of vanguard for any progressive revolution in that country, not because black people are special or their melanin levels give them magic powers, but because of their objective position within the structures of American society. He argued that if blacks mobilised en masse for their freedom then the dynamics of the entire society will shift too.
James was creative and intellectually flexible in his Marxism, as opposed to the rigid and economistic forms many of his contemporaries adhered to, which allowed him to have an integrated view of race and class and how they influenced each other within the wider context of capitalist society and international political economy.
In his view, it is not simply class, and not simply race, that matter; because if you don’t understand how the wider political, social and economic structures divide and rule societies in their totality, you will get nowhere.
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This stance goes against both class reductionism and some of the superficial nonsense that masquerades as ‘anti-racism’ and ‘intersectionality’. James rejects it as always tending to personalise power and hence the enemy, and for basing itself on politically correct gesture politics that frets about ‘micro-aggressions’ and ‘cultural appropriation’. That reduces the struggle against institutions and practices to a trivial fight against individuals and attitudes. This facile and essentialist identity politics is counterproductive to any based on solidarity and liberation.
James expressed the core point very simply when he was asked to become a teacher at the department of the newly created Black Studies in Washington DC’s Federal City College (a post he accepted, but with some reservations):
“I do not know, as a Marxist, ‘Black Studies’ as such. I only know the struggle of people against tyranny and oppression in a certain political and social setting, and particularly in the last two hundred years. It is impossible for me to separate black studies from white studies in any theoretical point of view.”
James understood that any successful politics should not reinforce one’s narrow and parochial identity, but help to transcend it. We live in a big world, and it is in this context that our politics must be situated: to restrict people politically in little ethnic and racial silos is not productive to any genuinely progressive project.
It is this radical humanism and intellectual cosmopolitanism that is the greatest lesson we can learn from James. Because in this age, where solidarity has been eroded, where identity politics may seem pervasive, where racist oppression may seem immovable, where the hope that we can change society and create a better world is possible may seem fanciful, the core democratic and revolutionary principles of James can guide us to create new ideas and new movements that can help us emancipate ourselves.