‘A Mine Of Ideas Advancing Far Ahead Of Its Time’

‘A Mine Of Ideas Advancing Far Ahead Of Its Time’

Reflections On C.L.R. James’s History Of Pan-African Revolt And Its Legacy For Africa Today

By Christian Høgsbjerg (University of Leeds)

September 13, 2016         Picture: Steve Pyke/Getty.

This article is part of The Critique’s September/October 2016 Issue “The Bright Continent: Illuminating The Challenges, Opportunities & Promises Of A Rising Africa”.

“I wish my readers to understand the history of Pan-African Revolt … they fought, they suffered – they are still fighting. Once we understand that, we can tackle our problems with the necessary mental equilibrium”.[1]

So wrote the black Trinidadian Marxist historian and writer Cyril Lionel Robert James (1901-1989) in 1969, in the epilogue to A History of Pan-African Revolt, a new edition of a work originally published in 1938 under the title A History of Negro Revolt and now re-issued by Drum and Spear Press, a Pan-Africanist collective based in Washington, DC. Perhaps with hindsight, the new edition of the work could have been re-titled A History of Black Revolt, which might have made the work resonate more powerfully today, in the age of #BlackLivesMatter. However, reframing the work under the banner of Pan-Africanism did importantly link the work clearly to the Pan-Africanist movement of which James himself was an important theoretician and activist, not least in the 1930s in Britain, when it was written. As Michael O. West and William G. Martin, two editors of From Toussaint to Tupac: The Black International since the Age of Revolution (2009) note,

‘C.L.R. James’s little gem of 1938, A History of Negro Revolt, which began with the Haitian Revolution and used it as a yardstick for judging a number of subsequent pan-African struggles’ was a ‘pioneering and exceptional work’ outlining the history of what they call the ‘black international’.[2]

Though only 80 pages long, and destined to remain forever overshadowed by the sheer majesty of The Black Jacobins – James’s magisterial history of the Haitian Revolution which also appeared in 1938 – A History of Negro Revolt nonetheless established James as one of the path-breaking historians of black internationalism and resistance. In a fast-paced and sweeping narrative, James portrayed and analysed from a Marxist perspective an incredibly rich and diverse range of social movements and black liberation struggles, past and present, across the African diaspora.[3] The work represented, as the Guyanese revolutionary historian Walter Rodney, author of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, once noted, ‘a mine of ideas advancing far ahead of its time’.[4]


The Making of A History of Negro Revolt

It seems unlikely that many of those close to the young C.L.R. James as he grew to intellectual maturity as a black colonial subject in the British Crown colony of Trinidad would have seriously imagined that one day he should have written such a work. During the 1920s, he was a young aspiring novelist and a respected teacher of History and English at the elite school to which he had won a scholarship as a boy, Queen’s Royal College. It is true that as a modern young liberal humanist West Indian intellectual and a writer of implicitly anti-colonial ‘barrack-yard stories’, James would indeed come to the fore in vindicating the intelligence and achievements of black people, including Africans, in opposition to the white supremacy that underpinned European colonialism – most notably in a polemical 1931 article countering a racist English scientist in which he praised the Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint Louverture.

However, while the source of works such as The Black Jacobins and A History of Negro Revolt lie in the Caribbean, it was only after his move to England in 1932 that his developing ‘black internationalism’ began to really emerge and replace his early identification with imperial ‘Britishness’. This is not the place to detail his growing commitment to more radical transnational identifications with African people and people of African descent, and their culture, while in Britain. Suffice it to say that his evolution towards militant Pan-Africanism in the midst of the Great Depression and the rising threat of fascism in Europe went side by side with his political radicalisation towards revolutionary Marxism. By 1934, when he joined the tiny international Trotskyist movement, James had not only arrived at an explicitly anti-imperialist vision of ‘West Indian self-government’ but was also openly declaring in public lectures that ‘there was going to be a tremendous revolt in Africa someday’.[5]

Critical for James in his shift to militant Pan-Africanism were to be his historical researches into the Haitian Revolution – which first bore fruit in an anti-imperialist play about that revolution’s great leader, Toussaint Louverture: the story of the only successful slave revolt in history that was produced and performed with Robeson himself in the title role in March 1936 on London’s West End – and his Pan-Africanist agitation and activism. In 1935, James became chair of the newly formed International African Friends of Abyssinia (IAFA), organised in London to rally solidarity with the people of Ethiopia in the face of Mussolini’s barbaric war that year, but it was to be the arrival onto the political scene of inter-war London of his boyhood friend and compatriot George Padmore (1903-1959) that was to prove decisive [See James for more information on the influence of George Padmore]. Unlike James, Padmore had identified with Pan-Africanism from his early days reading W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey in 1920s colonial Trinidad, and though James and Padmore had lost touch since Padmore moved to America in 1925, the two of them, more by accident than design, enjoyed a brief re-union in London in the summer of 1933.

Padmore had risen to become one of the leading black activists in the Communist International, indeed chair of the ‘Negro Bureau’ of the Red International of Labour Unions (the Profintern) and editor of the seditious publication, the Negro Worker. However, not long after Hitler’s Nazis had come to power in Germany, Stalin had moved to try and make diplomatic approaches with Britain and France for reasons of national security, and the theorists of the Communist International accordingly now drew a distinction between the ‘Democratic Imperialist’ countries of Britain, America and France on the one hand and the ‘Fascist Imperialist’ powers of Germany, Italy and Japan on the other. In August 1933, Padmore made what he retrospectively justified as a principled resignation from the Communist International in protest at their sidelining of support for anti-colonialist struggle against the now supposedly ‘democratic’ and ‘peace-loving’ British and French colonial dictatorships in Africa.   After surviving a vicious Stalinist witch-hunt, Padmore had worked in Paris with Francophone Pan-Africanists while also writing a 400 page work – which would appear in 1936 as How Britain Rules Africa – before turning up at the door of James’s flat in August 1935, and quickly throwing himself into activity.[6]

Though the agitation over Ethiopia began to fall away in Britain after Mussolini declared ‘Mission Accomplished’ in 1936, the questions the IAFA had raised about Africa and imperialist domination in general were more relevant than ever as Europe headed once again towards war. Accordingly, from about June 1936, Padmore had tried to launch a new broad organization, the ‘Pan-African Federation’ before he was able, with the help of others including the Kenyan nationalist Jomo Kenyatta and I.T.A. Wallace-Johnson, secretary of the West African Youth League and a towering giant of African trade-unionism originally from Sierra Leone, to launch the International African Service Bureau for the Defence of Africans and People of African Descent’, (IASB) in May 1937. The IASB raised the case for and built solidarity with liberation struggles across the African diaspora. As James – who edited the IASB paper Africa and the World and the journal International African Opinion – remembered:

“We carried on agitation and propaganda in England whenever we got the opportunity, speaking in Hyde Park regularly and addressing meetings of the Independent Labour Party, the Labour Party, attending all the front organisations that the communists organised… the basis of that work and the development of ideas was Padmore’s encyclopaedic knowledge of Africa, or African politics and African personalities, his tireless correspondence with Africans in all parts of the continent, the unceasing stream of Africans who made the Bureau and its chairman their political headquarters when in London”.[7]

Testimony to the growing profile of the IASB was the fact that in 1937 the British socialist historian Raymond Postgate, founder and editor of a new left wing monthly review FACT asked Padmore for a piece on ‘Negro revolt’. However, Padmore, whose new work Africa and World Peace had recently been published, claiming pressures of IASB activity, instead referred Postgate onto James, who was then busy putting the finishing touches to The Black Jacobins. James, by this time ‘within Padmore’s circle of associates, the most articulate theoretician of Pan-Africanism’ according to Manning Marable, wrote what became A History of Negro Revolt rapidly, finishing by April 1938.[8]

Just as James’s 1937 anti-Stalinist history of ‘the rise and fall of the Communist International’, World Revolution, 1917-1936 was in essence a synthesis based on a compilation of Trotskyist literature, now James put his growing repertoire of knowledge of the history of Pan-African struggles to good use. There was one important precedent to James’s work – a classic Communist pamphlet entitled The Life and Struggles of Negro Toilers, which George Padmore had written in 1931. Padmore was to be a critical influence for James in the writing of A History of Negro Revolt. James recalled how Padmore ‘brought his great knowledge of Africa to bear’, and ‘we had a marvelous time putting in a number of provocative statements which we knew Postgate would object to. But by putting in those and then agreeing to take them out, much really good stuff was sure to get in.’[9] James paid tribute to Padmore in the text, noting ‘the files of the Negro Worker give many accounts of these revolts, and The Life and Struggles of Negro Toilers, by George Padmore, contains a great deal of coordinated information which is not easily available elsewhere’.[10]


‘Revolts in Africa’

James stressed the continuing relevance of the Haitian Revolution for the modern African diaspora throughout A History of Negro Revolt, which after discussing ‘revolutionary emancipation’ through the Haitian Revolution and the American Civil War shifted focus now to Africa itself and the ‘series of revolts, which have never ceased’ since the European ‘scramble’ for the continent in the 1880s up to the general strike in the Gold Coast in 1937.   James’s stress on agency made the work very different from say, Padmore’s 1936 work How Britain Rules Africa which provided detail of the precise structural differences in terms of capital formation and imperial rule that marked each individual colony. As James noted,

‘the difference between the native under Belgian imperialism plain and simple, and Belgian imperialism carrying out the mandate of the League of Nations, is that the Belgian Government presents a report at Geneva on the working of the mandate. The native, however, is not likely to know this.’[11]

Indeed, the work was much closer in its revolutionary spirit and emphasis on class struggle and revolutionary leadership to Padmore’s earlier Life and Struggles of Negro Toilers – which as we have noted, James drew on heavily in places – though James’s work was of course free from the sectarian imperatives and catastrophist perspectives demanded by the Communist International during its ‘Third Period’. Rather, as Walter Rodney noted in a 1972 symposium on ‘The African Revolution’, in James’s chapter on ‘Revolts in Africa’, ‘in each instance, he pinpointed phenomena of the greatest relevance to the creation of Africa as it is today, and he was doing so a comfortable twenty years before writings on these subjects generally acknowledged these facts.’[12]

Recalling the writing of The Black Jacobins, James noted that ‘historical in form, it drew its contemporaneousness, as all such books must, from the living struggle around us, and particularly from the daily activity that centred around Padmore and the African Bureau’.[13] The same and more could be applied to the writing of A History of Negro Revolt, which in places relied directly for information on the contacts and political relationships the IASB was able to establish with anti-colonialist African activists in Britain and in Africa itself. For example, James managed to put together a brief portrayal of ‘the extraordinary women’s revolt’ against the implementation of an unfair new tax in the British colony of Nigeria in 1929, a spontaneous rebellion ‘the strength and vigour’ of which were ‘a shock to the Europeans’:

“Thousands of women organised protest demonstrations against the Government and its chiefs and at Aba, the capital of the Eastern Province, the women who sold in the market, faced with the possibility of a tax which would destroy their small profits, organized a revolt. The writer is informed by Africans from Nigeria that the actual happenings in Aba have been suppressed in all official reports. The women seized public buildings and held them for days. The servants refused to cook for their white masters and mistresses and some of them made the attempt to bring the European women by force into the markets to give them some experience of what work was like … a detachment of soldiers suppressed the revolt, shooting at the black women as they tried to escape across the river. Martial law was proclaimed and the Governor called a meeting of the African editors of Lagos threatening them with imprisonment if they published news of what was happening at Aba”.[14]

Rodney thought it particularly noteworthy that James discussed ‘a series of African social movements’ of the inter-war years in Eastern and Central Africa, ‘commonly designated as the African Independent Church movement. James unerringly identified three of the most important of these – centred on John Chilembwe (Malawi), Simon Kimbangu (Congo) and Harry Thuku (Kenya)’.[15] James noted that ‘in the thirty years before the [Great] war, the tribes simply threw themselves at the government troops and suffered the inevitable defeat. Such risings could not go on. They were too obviously suicidal.’ However, beginning with the Chilembwe rising in Nyasaland in 1915, ‘we have a new type – a rising led not by a tribal chief’ but by an African preacher or ‘prophet’ who has had some religious education and so ‘often translated the insurrection into religious terms’. Of ‘the greatest of the religious type of revolt’ which began in 1921 around Simon Kimbangu in the Belgian Congo, James noted that ‘he appealed to the natives to leave the mission churches, controlled by their European masters, and to set up their own independent church organisation under his guidance. To every African such a movement is an instinctive step towards independence’.[16] As Rodney noted, James stood against the tendency in European scholarship to portray such movements ‘as being exclusively related to religion or superstition’ but ‘distinguished between form and content, noting that the language of religion in which the protests were couched should not obscure the fact that they sprung from such things as forced labour, land alienation and colonial taxation’.[17]


Analysing Racial Formation

One other critical stress that Rodney picked up on in James’s chapter on ‘Revolts in Africa’ was the ‘analysis of worker’s organizations and their militancy’, including ‘the powerful Black trade-union activity’ of the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union (ICU) of South Africa under the leadership of Clements Kadalie. Of James’s careful tracing of the rise and fall of the Kadalie movement during the 1920s, Rodney notes,

“in a most economical manner, he probed the quality of the leadership, examined the relationship of leadership to the mass from which it sprang, reflected on the international context of the strikes and other protests by the African workers of South Africa at that time, and quietly indicated that within a racist situation the category of “class” must be seriously re-examined”.[18]

As James had noted of Kadalie, ‘the white South African workers refused his offer of unity, for these, petty-bourgeois in outlook owing to their high wages and the social degradation of the Negro, are among the bitterest enemies of the native workers’.[19] This discussion, made long before the rise of academic ‘whiteness’ studies, implicitly noted the importance of what Du Bois called ‘the public and psychological wage’ gained by white workers in societies based on fixed hierarchies related to upholding ideas of white supremacy, and built on Marx’s ideas of how racism could fatally undermine class unity.[20]

In A History of Negro Revolt, James had a fascinating analysis of what scholars now call ‘racial formation’ in the context of the Haitian Revolution, and James briefly recounted the process by which ‘race’ was socially constructed, deconstructed and then reconstructed according to shifts in wider relations of class power on the French colony of Saint Domingue throughout the revolution:

“The attitude of the whites towards changes in the San Domingo regime throws a valuable light on race prejudice. Before the revolution Negroes were so despised that white women undressed before them as one undresses today before a dog or a cat. Ten years after, when former slaves were now ruling the country, most of the whites accepted the new regime, fraternized with the ex-slave generals and dined at their tables; while the white women, members of some of the proudest families of the French aristocracy, threw themselves recklessly at the black dictator [Toussaint Louverture], sent him locks of hair, keepsakes, passionate letters, etc. To the labouring Negroes, however, they showed as much of their old hostility as they dared. When the [imperial French] Leclerc expedition came [in 1802], the whites rushed to join it, and took a leading part in the gladiatorial shows where dogs ate living Negroes, etc. But when they saw that Leclerc’s expedition was doomed to defeat, they disentangled themselves from it and turned again to the blacks”.[21]

Indeed, for James, to contextualise the Kadalie movement in its full historical perspective, one had to understand ‘the real parallel to this movement is the mass uprising in San Domingo. There is the same instinctive capacity for organisation, the same throwing up of gifted leaders from the masses.’ James accordingly stressed the critical importance of the relationship between resistance in the colony and in the metropolis, ‘Whereas [with Haiti] there was a French Revolution in 1794 rooting out the old order in France, needing the black revolution, and sending out encouragement, organisers and arms, there was nothing like that in Britain.’ While the absence of a revolutionary situation in post-war Britain ultimately ensured the movement in South Africa ‘could not maintain itself … seen in that historical perspective, the Kadalie movement can be seen for the profoundly important thing that it was’.[22]


The Zambian Copperbelt Mineworkers Strike of 1935

After discussing Garveyism and the Caribbean Labour Rebellions of the 1930s, James decided to close his history of revolt and rebellion across the African diaspora by returning to Africa to discuss the significance of a spontaneous mass strike of copper miners in Northern Rhodesia (what is now Zambia) in May 1935, which he considered to be of immense historical portent and significance. The Copperbelt miners had struck in protest at an increase in the poll tax at a time of rising economic insecurity, a strike that was bloodily repressed with six miners left dead and twenty-two wounded. Frederick Cooper has drawn attention to the creativity of the miners and their supporters during this strike:

“The Northern Rhodesian mineworkers strike of 1935 was organised without benefit of trade unions, and it spread from mine to mine, from mine town to mine town, by personal networks, dance societies, religious organisations, and eventually mass meetings. The movement embraced non-miners in the towns, women as well as men”.[23]

One can imagine the growing excitement for a Marxist and militant Pan-Africanist like James in Britain as he gradually learnt more and more about what had actually taken place. The movement was centred around the ‘native proletariat’ – Copperbelt miners – and for James, the parallels between the glorious self-activity and capacity for improvisation displayed by the supporters of the striking Copperbelt miners and the enslaved Africans who had made the Haitian Revolution were compelling. ‘Should world events give these people a chance, they will destroy what has them by the throat as surely as the San Domingo blacks destroyed the French plantations.’[24]

James made such a statement after noting that the official 1935 Report of the Commission appointed to enquire into the Disturbances in the Copperbelt, Northern Rhodesia, a Commission chaired by Sir Alison Russell, had found that ‘the Watch Tower Movement has some influence among the Rhodesian natives’.[25] In 1936, in How Britain Rules Africa, Padmore had described how the ‘Watch Tower Movement’ of Jehovah’s Witnesses and others was ‘one of the most formidable organisations of tribal-“religious” character’ in Africa:

“The Watch Tower Movement, although originating in Nyasaland, has widespread ramifications into the Belgian Congo, Northern Rhodesia and Tanganyika. Much of its activities is so interwoven in the tribal life of the people that it is difficult for Europeans to keep track of its underground activities”.[26]

For James, the ‘Watch Tower Movement’ was a symbol of the coming African Revolution. ‘It is difficult to say exactly the true influence of the Watch Tower. The writer has been informed by Negro sailors that its influence is widely spread throughout Africa, and that it is the most powerful revolutionary force in Africa today.’ Using such sources as well as the detail in the Russell Commission, James went on to spell out a pioneering Marxist analysis of the appeal of this millenarian movement based on ‘Revelations of St. John the Baptist’ in the Bible to Africans suffering under European colonial domination[27]:

“The Watch Tower bases its teaching on the second coming of Christ … [and declares] all the governments which are ruling the world, especially Great Britain and the United States of America, are organisations of Satan, and that all churches, especially the Protestant and Roman Catholic churches, are emissaries of Satan. Religion thus becomes a weapon in the class struggle”.

Indeed, James described how Watch Tower preached ‘a transparent doctrine’ in colonial Africa, ‘a fierce resentment against all the imperialist Powers’. ‘It does not seek to distinguish between the Fascist and the democratic imperialisms. To the vast body of Africans in Africa such a distinction is meaningless.’ Watch Tower saw Great Britain as the ‘blasphemous name’ of the seventh head of ‘the Beast’, which represented the ruling powers of the world under the control of the Devil, ‘given authority over every tribe, people, language and nation’. The League of Nations was a ‘false prophet’ born of the Devil and the British Empire, another beast that ‘exercised all the authority of the first beast on his behalf, and made the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast … he deceived the inhabitants of the earth’. As James commented, ‘the gentle Jesus, meek and mild, of the missionaries cannot compete with the Watch Tower God’[28]:

“Such are the ideas moving in the minds of these African copper miners. They are absurd only on the surface. They represent political realities and express political aspirations far more closely than programmes and policies of parties with millions of members, numerous journals and half a century of history behind them”.

Just as James saw voodoo as ‘the medium of the conspiracy’ for the illiterate enslaved Africans on Saint Domingue in The Black Jacobins, James declared ‘Watch Tower says what the thinking native thinks and what he is prepared to die for’.[29] It is the possibilities that ‘the African Revolution’ could come through first a series of spontaneous uprisings, some possibly waged by those inspired by the Watch Tower Movement that surely helped strengthen James in his decision to end both The Black Jacobins and A History of Negro Revolt with these Copperbelt miners in colonial Africa as opposed to, say, the more explicitly political labour rebellions of the colonial Caribbean during the 1930s:

“Though often retarded and sometimes diverted, the current of history, observed from an eminence, can be seen to unite strange and diverse tributaries in its own embracing logic. The San Domingo revolutionaries, the black army in the Civil War, were unconscious but potent levers in two great propulsions forward of modern civilisation. Today the Rhodesian copper miner, living the life of three shillings a week, is but another cog in the wheels of a creaking world economy … but Negro emancipation has expanded with the centuries; what was local and national in San Domingo and America is today an international urgency, entangling the future of a hundred million Africans with all the hopes and fears of Western Europe. Though dimly, the political consciousness immanent in the historical process emerges in groping and neglected Africa. If Toussaint wrote in the language of ’89, the grotesquerie of Watch Tower primitively approximates to the dialectic of Marx and Lenin. This it is which lifts out of bleakness and invests with meaning a record of failure almost unrelieved”.[30]


Reception and Impact

In September 1938, A History of Negro Revolt was published, and James remembered it ‘could be seen on all bookshops and railway stalls’.[31] Nonetheless, he recalled that ‘the book has a peculiar history’. ‘Postgate’s name got the book sold in book-stores all over the country. When they found out what was in it some of them carefully hid it. There were places we went to where we found they had hidden it – they put it under a lot of other books, but when you asked for it they would say, yes, we have it.’[32] Such self-censorship in the ‘dark heart’ of imperial Britain was perhaps not so surprising. At the end of The Black Jacobins, James had described colonial Africa as a ‘vast prison’, and in A History of Negro Revolt James concluded by noting ‘the African bruises and breaks himself against his bars in the interests of freedoms wider than his own’.[33] But James also stressed that a mass prison breakout was not just necessary but in certain conditions possible as there were so few white people who could act as guards around. Indeed, given ‘the real basis of imperialist control in Africa is the cruisers and aeroplanes of Europe’, the looming inter-imperialist war provided immense possibilities and potentialities for African revolutionaries. ‘If, for instance a revolt began in the Congo and spread to South Africa, East Africa, West Africa, the Africans could easily overwhelm the whites if these could no longer receive assistance from abroad.’[34]

Many other black writers naturally dreamt of a post-colonial Africa during the 1930s – and the black American ‘literary Pan-Africanist’ George S. Schuyler even went as far as to imagine ‘a tale of black insurrection against Italian Imperialism’, a ‘revolt in Ethiopia’, the rise of a new ‘black Internationale’ and the emergence of a ‘great new civilization in modern Africa, a ‘black Empire’ in a set of Afrocentrist stories written during the 1930s – but few others aside from James put such effort into actually excavating and recovering the historical foundations for the coming ‘African Revolution’.[35] It was effort that was appreciated by the few who took the time to read A History of Negro Revolt.[36] After all, for all the limitations and stylistic weaknesses of A History of Negro Revolt, resulting from the fact that it was written at great speed amidst a host of other commitments, James’s distinctive revolutionary Marxist take on Pan-African struggles gave the book a rare prophetic power and urgency. Indeed, it is also worth remembering, as James himself later recalled, that ‘such a book had never been done before’:

“I gathered a lot of material in it, and really I’m astonished now at how much there was that I didn’t know. But the book has the virtue that there were all sorts of problems – like the struggles of women, market women in Africa and so on – that went into it, aside from the historical things like the Haitian revolution and the blacks in the American Civil War…”[37]


The Fifth Pan-African Congress

James’s A History of Negro Revolt stands, just as Seymour Drescher once noted of The Black Jacobins, as ‘one of the historiographical manifestoes of anti-imperialist scholarship on the eve of decolonization’.[38] As James later reflected, the strategic perspective articulated in A History of Negro Revolt and other works such as The Black Jacobins:

“took armed rebellion for granted as the only road to metro­politan and colonial freedom, and from this premise flowed certain theoretical perspectives. The San Domingo revolution had been directly inspired by the French revolution, had developed side by side with it, and had had an enormous influence upon the course of that revolution. The book there­fore constantly implied that the African revolution would be similarly contingent upon the socialist revolution in Europe. It did not envisage an independent movement of Africans as being able to succeed in face of the enormous military power that a stable imperialist government would be able to bring to bear”.[39]

However, as the Second World War came to a close with the European socialist revolution still out of sight, James recalled that among IASB activists around Padmore in Britain in 1945 ‘there came a sharp break with the theory outlined above. The Bureau changed its position from the achievement of independence by armed rebellion to the achievement of independence by non-violent mass action’.[40] Armed rebellion was now declared to be a last resort. As the Fifth Pan-African Congress which met in Manchester in October 1945 declared in its opening statement, ‘Challenge to the Colonial Powers’,

“The delegates to the Fifth Pan-African Congress believe in peace. How could it be otherwise when for centuries the African peoples have been victims of violence and slavery? Yet if the Western world is still determined to rule mankind by force, then Africans, as a last resort, may have to appeal to force in the effort to achieve Freedom, even if force destroys them and the world … we will fight in every way we can for freedom, democracy and social betterment”.[41]

James later explained the thinking behind this ‘sharp break’ in theory, strategy and tactics:

“The colonial govern­ment in power can call upon the power of the metropolitan country as soon as it is aware of any dangerous movement against it. To stake independence upon armed rebellion was therefore to have as a precondition the collapse or military paralysis of the metropolitan government. It was in other words to place the initiative for African struggle upon the European proletariat (…) But by the end of the war the proletariat of Britain and France had not spoken. Imperialism still held sway at home. Only a radical alteration in theory could form a basis for action. The perspective of armed rebellion was abandoned (though held in reserve) and non-violent mass action was substituted (…) The colonial government forces consisted of soldiers and police who were able to deal with a riot or a demonstration of a few thousand people. They could easily shoot down demonstrators, very often they would provoke them in order to put a quick end to a movement which threatened to involve large masses. But colonial governments had neither the forces nor the experience to deal with a general strike of the great body of the people who refused to be provoked. It was calculated that the organisation of the masses, in trade unions, co-operatives, political organisations, those that existed and new ones, in whatever form they presented them­selves, strikes in industry, political demonstrations, etc. were all constitutional, and therefore, in theory at least, could be carried out with a fair chance of being able to avoid cruel reprisals. By the time the masses were organised, it would be possible then to challenge the government. This also was constitutional in that it did not involve armed rebellion. By 1945 it was clear that the bourgeoisie in Britain could not attempt extra-legal action against a legally elected Labour government; it was fairly clear in 1945 that it would never be able to carry out military action against India in revolt. The relation of forces had changed and changed decisively to the increase in energy and audacity of any colonial people determined to revolt. Undoubtedly the influence of Gandhi’s non-violent campaigns played a great role. But in 1945 when the change was made, India was not yet free”.

As James recalled, ‘In 1945 Du Bois and Padmore merged their ideas and influence to hold the fifth Pan-African conference in Manchester, and it was at this conference that the resolution analysed above [with a new stress on militant non-violence] was produced.’[42] The decision to re-launch the IASB as the ‘Pan-African Federation’ showed that Padmore’s change in strategy was inspired not just by Gandhi but also by the strategy of militant non-violence now being advocated by W.E.B. Du Bois, the great black American historian and initiator of many of the Pan-African Congresses. As Du Bois put it at the 1945 Congress, ‘the tempo of coloured people has changed. Either the British government will extend self-government in West Africa and the West Indies or face open revolt’.[43] The debates about this new strategic turn inevitably animated the Congress itself. So Chief Soyemi Coker from Nigeria put the case for non-violence, noting ‘we must take India as an example’. I.T.A. Wallace Johnson, who had recently been released after over five years of imprisonment and exile at the hands of the British colonial state during the Second World War in Sierra Leone, responded, noting that ‘although Mr. Gandhi opposed the use of force, he used different kinds of force, including the force of fasting’. The struggle for Indian independence had involved violence and mass strikes, and as Joe Appiah from the Gold Coast (Ghana) put it, the only language the Englishman understood was that of force: ‘it is only force that will bring us out of this disgraceful condition in which we find ourselves’. The young Gold Coast nationalist Kwame Nkrumah supported his compatriot Appiah, by calling for the downfall of imperialism, noting ‘we fight for these ends even by revolutionary methods – seizure of power is an essential prerequisite for the fulfilment of social, economic and cultural aspirations of colonial peoples, we condemn internal self-government within the empire – we stand for full and unconditional independence’.[44] As another young student from the Gold Coast in attendance, F.R. Kankam-Boadu, later recalled, ‘the notion was expressed that the British government would not, out of its free will, “donate” self-rule to a colony, and that the application of some element of force might be necessary’.[45]


The African Revolution Erupts

The Fifth Pan-African Congress made it evident that Pan-Africanism was an idea whose time had come, and helped lay the ideological and organisational basis for decolonisation in British Africa. As C.L.R. James (who was based in America during the 1940s and so missed the Congress himself) later noted, ‘it was attended by over two hundred delegates from all over the world, the great majority of them engaged in trade union work or other type of work connected with the organisation of the masses of workers and farmers in Africa.’ But more than this, James stressed the new militant nationalist leadership around Nkrumah which emerged out of the Congress, and would help lead Ghana to independence in 1957, just twelve years later:

“Nkrumah had landed in Britain in June 1945. By October he was joint political secretary of the conference with Padmore and he made the report on the problems of the West African colonies and European domination. The merg­ing of the two currents represented by Padmore and Du Bois and the entry of Nkrumah signalised the ending of one period and the beginning of another. Until Nkrumah came, it is true to say that despite the faithful work of some Africans and a few Negro workers, the moving spirits in this work were West Indian intellectuals living in England (…) Many gifted young West Indians, though not organisationally connected with the Bureau, were under its influence and shared its emphasis on the importance for all peoples of African descent of the emancipation of Africa (…) In the political thirties they participated fully in the intense discussions and activities of the time, and few in England, except European refugees, had had more actual inside experience of revolutionary politics than Padmore. It was to this circle with its accumulated knowledge, experience and wide contacts that Nkrumah was introduced in June 1945. Nowhere in the world could he have found a better school. For two years and a half he worked and lived in the very closest association with Padmore. Nkrumah not only took. He gave. This large body of active workers in Africa who attended the Manchester conference symbolised a new stage of the work in England. Nkrumah brought to this work what had never been done before. To theoretical study, propaganda and agitation, the building and maintaining of contacts abroad, he added the organisation politically of Africans and people of African descent in London. He helped to found a West African National Secretariat in London for the purpose of organising the struggle in West Africa. The leading members of this were Africans, and thus Africans with roots in Africa began to take over from the West Indians who had hitherto been the leaders. Most important of all, he was the leading spirit in the formation of the Coloured Workers’ Association of Great Britain. Through this organisation he linked together the students and the workers from Africa and the people of African descent living in England, organised them and carried on political work among them. It is now possible to form some estimate of what Nkrumah represents (…) a unique individual. In his elemental African consciousness of centuries of wrong and an unquenchable desire for freedom, there had met and fused, by theory and practice, some of the most diverse, powerful and highly developed currents in the modern world (…) To this day the Colonial Office and the government have no idea of what hit them, and if they haven’t now, it can be imagined how blank they were in 1947 [when Nkrumah returned to the Gold Coast]. While they were meditating on how to restore order (…) Nkrumah sat alone and wrote out his precise plans for what they would have considered stark insanity, their final and irrevocable ejection from Ghana”.[46]

It was not just Nkrumah who would attend the Congress and ultimately end up leader of an independent nation state in Africa, the same was true of Jomo Kenyatta (who would be imprisoned for nine years by the British as they tried to suppress the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya) and Hastings Banda (Nyasaland / Malawi). Within twenty years of the Congress all the African colonies Britain dominated had political independence, except for South Africa and what was then Rhodesia. As James noted in 1969, in his epilogue to A History of Pan-African Revolt,

‘African state after African state has gained political independence with a tumultuous rush that was not envisaged even by the most sanguine of the early advocates of independence … Kenyatta, Nkrumah, Banda, to take the best known names, were all imprisoned by the British government and had to be released to head the independent states.’[47]

Yet the failure of the European working class movements – overwhelmingly politically dominated by the politics of either Social Democracy and Stalinism during this period – to stir alongside ‘the African Revolution’ was ultimately, as James would note, one part of the explanation for the ultimate failure of victorious colonial liberation struggles to fulfil the hopes and expectations of their supporters, and the degeneration of the dream of ‘Pan-African socialism’ into the reality of autocratic rule and bureaucratic corruption. In 1957, James insisted ‘the revolt in Kenya’ would have been comparable to the inspirational Haitian Revolution had there been ‘socialist allies’ of it in power in Britain, just as the French Jacobins had been vital to the ultimate success of the revolt on Saint Domingue.[48] Nonetheless, the eruption of ‘the African Revolution’ – with the working class playing a central role in the struggle for independence in many places including Nigeria and Zambia – represented a clear vindication of James’s vision in A History of Negro Revolt.[49]


Lessons and Legacy

With the victory of national liberation movements came the ultimate transformation of Pan-Africanism from a social movement into a state ideology representing and legitimating the interests of new class elites. As Ken Olende has noted, ‘the logic of independence was nationalist. Each leader looked to develop their own nation.’ Padmore’s own stage-ist approach to ‘Pan-African Socialism’ (arguing that ‘countries must be first nationally free before they can begin to practise their communism’), only reinforced the tendency to place national development before anything else.[50] By 1959, the British Foreign Office could note in a secret memorandum, ‘Africa: The Next Ten Years’, that ‘Pan-Africanism, in itself, is not necessarily a force that we need regard with suspicion and fear’.[51] In 1964, when James broke with Kwame Nkrumah, he stressed that the rise of a Westernised capitalist elite in postcolonial African regimes like Ghana spelled disaster, and indeed ‘Africa (and other countries as well, but Africa in particular) will go crashing from precipice to precipice unless the plans for economic development are part of a deep philosophical concept of what the mass of the African people need’.[52]

In 1969, writing after Nkrumah’s downfall in Ghana, James insisted that part of the problem was that ‘the states which the African nationalist leaders inherited were not in any sense African … the newly independent African state was little more than the old imperialist state only now administered and controlled by Black nationalists.’

“That these men, western-educated and western-orientated, had or would have little that was nationalist or African to contribute to the establishment of a truly new and truly African order was seen most clearly by the late Frantz Fanon, and he established his still constantly increasing reputation by his untrammelled advocacy of revolt against these Black nationalist regimes. Uncompromising revolt he saw as the only means of ridding Africa of the economic and psychological domination by Western Civilization which, independence or no independence, seemed certain to keep Africa and Africans hewers of wood and drawers of water to Western civilization”.[53]

James ended his 1969 epilogue to A History of Pan-African Revolt with a homage to Julius Nyerere’s 1967 Arusha Declaration and his attempt at building socialism through the co-operative villages (‘Ujamaa’) in Tanzania, which seemed for James to be making a break with this pattern of orientation to Western capitalism:

‘Tanzania is the highest peak reached so far by revolting Blacks’, James now declared, and he soon proceeded to work with Nyerere to prepare to organise a Sixth Pan-African Congress in Tanzania.[54] However, by 1974, when the Sixth Pan-African Congress was finally held in Dar es Salaam, James’s private disillusion with Nyerere and the class nature of Tanzanian society had already set in after Congress organisers refused to recognise delegates (often trade unionists and socialists) that were not officially sanctioned by their respective governments. This provoked James to now organise a boycott of a Congress he had originally championed and help work for, declaring ‘I know those Caribbean governments as well as anybody else … and I was not going to be a representative of any one of them!’[55]

Summing up the lessons and legacy of A History of Pan-African Revolt in 1995, historian Robin D.G. Kelley noted that the work ‘leaves us with two incontrovertible facts’:

“First, as long as Black people are denied freedom, humanity, and a decent standard of living, they will continue to revolt. Second, unless these revolts involve the ordinary masses and take place on their own terms, they have no hope of succeeding”.[56]

As heroic black revolts from below continue today, from the international #BlackLivesMatter movement against racist state brutality in the West to the growing class struggles taking place in postcolonial Africa today, including oil workers in Nigeria, mineworkers in post-apartheid South Africa, bauxite workers in Guinea and public sector workers in Zimbabwe, the writings of C.L.R. James not only retain their relevance but will richly repay those readers who take the time and trouble to seek them out. We might however be permitted to suggest adding one other – third – ‘incontrovertible fact’ that emerges from a reading of James’s History of Pan-African Revolt to Kelley’s list. For James, as a Marxist, black liberation struggles and revolts were always intrinsically intertwined with a broader project of universal human emancipation, just as the Haitian Revolution was part the wider age of bourgeois-democratic revolution. As James wrote in 1939, just one year after writing his History of Negro Revolt:

“The Negro’s revolutionary history is rich, inspiring, and unknown. Negroes revolted against the slave raiders in Africa; they revolted against the slave traders on the Atlantic passage. They revolted on the plantations … the only place where Negroes did not revolt is in the pages of capitalist historians. All this revolutionary history can come as a surprise only to those who (…) have not yet ejected from their systems the pertinacious lies of Anglo-Saxon capitalism. It is not strange that the Negroes revolted. It would have been strange if they had not (…) What we as Marxists have to see is the tremendous role played by Negroes in the transformation of Western civilization from feudalism to capitalism. It is only from this vantage-ground that we shall be able to appreciate (and prepare for) the still greater role they must of necessity play in the transition from capitalism to socialism”.[57]

Footnotes & References

[1] C.L.R. James, A History of Pan-African Revolt (Chicago; Charles H. Kerr, 1995), p. 118.

[2] Michael O. West and William G. Martin, ‘Haiti, I’m Sorry: The Haitian Revolution and the Forging of the Black International’, in Michael O. West, William G. Martin and Fanon Che Wilkins, (eds.) From Toussaint to Tupac: The Black International since the Age of Revolution (Chapel Hill, 2009), p. 87.

[3] For a fuller analysis of A History of Negro Revolt, see Christian Høgsbjerg, ‘The Black International as Social Movement Wave: C.L.R. James’s History of Pan-African Revolt’, in Colin Barker, Laurence Cox, John Krinsky and Alf Nilsen (eds.) Marxism and Social Movements (Chicago: Haymarket, 2014).

[4] Walter Rodney, ‘The African Revolution’, in Paul Buhle (ed.), C.L.R. James: His Life and Work (London, 1986), p. 31.

[5] C.L.R. James, ‘Racial Prejudice in England’, Nelson Leader, 16 March 1934. For more on James’s political radicalisation in Britain, see Christian Høgsbjerg, C.L.R. James in Imperial Britain (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014).

[6] For James’s memories of Padmore, see for example, C.L.R. James, ‘George Padmore: Black Marxist Revolutionary – A Memoir [1976]’, in C.L.R. James, At the Rendezvous of Victory: Selected Writings, Vol. 3 (London, 1984), and C.L.R. James, ‘Writings from The Nation’, in Anna Grimshaw (ed.), The C.L.R. James Reader (Oxford, 1992). For more on Padmore, see Leslie James, George Padmore and Decolonization from Below: Pan-Africanism, the Cold War, and the End of Empire (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

[7] C.L.R. James, Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution (London, 1977), p. 65.

[8]   James R. Hooker, Black Revolutionary: George Padmore’s path from Communism to Pan-Africanism (London, 1967), p. 54. Manning Marable, Black Leadership (Harmondsworth, 1999), p. 91. On Postgate, see also Marc Mulholland, ‘How to Make a Revolution: The Historical and Political Writings of Raymond Postgate’, Socialist History, 49 (2016).

[9] C.L.R. James, ‘Notes on the Life of George Padmore’ (c1960), unpublished manuscript, copy available at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, London, p. 37.

[10] C.L.R. James, A History of Negro Revolt (London, 1938), p. 53.

[11] James, A History of Negro Revolt, pp. 37, 55-56.

[12] Rodney, ‘The African Revolution’, p. 32.

[13] James, Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution, p. 66.

[14] James, A History of Negro Revolt, pp. 45-46. In the end this strike was bloodily repressed, and ‘over 50 women were killed and over 50 wounded’.   See also Marc Matera, Misty L. Bastian, and Susan Kingsley Kent, The Women’s War of 1929: Gender and Violence in Colonial Nigeria (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

[15] Rodney, ‘The African Revolution’, p. 31.

[16] James, A History of Negro Revolt, pp. 47, 49.

[17] Rodney, ‘The African Revolution’, p. 32.

[18] Rodney, ‘The African Revolution’, pp. 32-33. As James had noted, white South African workers, ‘petty bourgeois in outlook owing to their high wages and the social degredation of the Negro, are among the bitterest enemies of the native workers’. James, A History of Negro Revolt, p. 62.

[19] James, A History of Negro Revolt, p. 62.

[20] Alex Callinicos, Race and Class (London: Bookmarks, 1993), pp. 36-39

[21] James, A History of Negro Revolt, p. 15.

[22]   James, A History of Negro Revolt, p. 62.

[23] Frederick Cooper, Decolonization and African Society: The labor question in French and British Africa (Cambridge, 1996), p. 58.   For more on the strike, see Charles Perrings, Black Mineworkers in Central Africa: Industrial strategies and the evolution of an African proletariat in the Copperbelt 1911-1941 (London, 1979), pp. 207-17.

[24] James, A History of Negro Revolt, p. 81.

[25] James, A History of Negro Revolt, p. 82. See the Report of the Commission appointed to enquire into the Disturbances in the Copperbelt, Northern Rhodesia, Cmd. 5009 (London, 1935), pp. 42-51.

[26] Padmore, How Britain Rules Africa (London, 1936), p. 365.

[27] James, A History of Negro Revolt, p. 83.

[28] James, A History of Negro Revolt, pp. 82-84.

[29] James, A History of Negro Revolt, p. 83; C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins; Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (London: Penguin, 2001), p. 69.

[30] James, A History of Negro Revolt, p. 85.

[31] C.L.R. James, ‘Black Intellectuals in Britain’, in Bhikhu Parekh (ed.), Colour, Culture and Consciousness (London: Allen & Unwin, 1974), p. 160.

[32] C.L.R. James, ‘Revolts in Africa’, in C.L.R. James, The Future in the Present: Selected Writings, Vol. 1 (London: Allison and Busby, 1977), p. 70.

[33]   James, The Black Jacobins, p. 303, and James, A History of Negro Revolt, p. 85.

[34] James, A History of Negro Revolt, pp. 84-85.

[35] These two stories, ‘The Black Internationale: The Story of Black Genius Against the World’ and ‘Black Empire: An Imaginative Story of a Great New Civilisation in Africa’ have been collected together in George S. Schuyler, Black Empire (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1991). The final story, ‘Revolt in Ethiopia: A Tale of Black Insurrection Against Italian Imperialism’ can be found in George S. Schuyler, Ethiopian Stories, (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1994).

[36] The American Trotskyist George E. Novack, for example, welcomed the work in his review in 1939, noting ‘this useful and inexpensive parcel of information ought to be in the hands of all revolutionary internationalists’. George E Novack, ‘Revolution, Black and White’, New International, 5, 5 (May 1939).

[37] James, ‘Revolts in Africa’, p. 70.

[38] Quoted in James, The Black Jacobins, p. viii.

[39] James, Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution, pp. 68-69.

[40] James, Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution, p. 69.

[41] ‘The Challenge to the Colonial Powers’ in Hakim Adi and Marika Sherwood, The 1945 Manchester Pan-African Congress Revisited (London: New Beacon, 1995), p. 55. For more on the Fifth Pan-African Congress, see Christian Høgsbjerg, ‘Remembering the Fifth Pan-African Congress’, Leeds African Studies Bulletin, 77 (2016).

[42] James, Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution, pp. 71-75.

[43] Hakim Adi and Marika Sherwood, The 1945 Manchester Pan-African Congress Revisited (London: New Beacon, 1995), p.49.

[44] Adi and Sherwood, The 1945 Manchester Pan-African Congress Revisited, pp. 44-45.

[45] Adi and Sherwood, The 1945 Manchester Pan-African Congress Revisited, p. 36.

[46] James, Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution, pp. 75-78.

[47] James, A History of Pan-African Revolt, p. 128.

[48] James, Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution, p. 69.

[49] See Leo Zeilig (ed.) Class Struggle and Resistance in Africa (Chicago: Haymarket, 2009).

[50] Ken Olende, ‘Planning the end of Europe’s empires – the 1945 Pan-African Congress’, Socialist Worker, 13 October 2015.

[51] ‘Africa: The Next Ten Years’ (A Memorandum Presented to British Cabinet by Secretary for Foreign Affairs, 1959), p. 29. Available online at http://www.waado.org/colonial_rule/decolonization_plans/british_1959_plans_projections.pdf

[52] James, Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution, p. 186.

[53] James, A History of Pan-African Revolt, pp. 129-130. For more of James’s thoughts on Fanon, see C.L.R. James, ‘Fanon and the Caribbean’, International Tribute to Frantz Fanon: Record of the Special meeting of the United Nations Special Committee against Apartheid, 3 November 1978, (United Nations Centre against Apartheid, New York, USA, 1979), pp. 43-46.

[54] James, A History of Pan-African Revolt, p. 130. For more on the Sixth Pan-African Congress, see Fanon Che Wilkins, ‘“A Line of Steel”: The Organisation of the Sixth Pan-African Congress and the Struggle for International Black Power, 1969-1974’ in Dan Berger (ed.), The Hidden 1970s: Histories of Radicalism (New Brunswick, 2010), pp. 97-114.

[55] Kent Worcester, C.L.R. James: A Political Biography (New York, 1996), p. 190.

[56] Robin D.G. Kelley, ‘Introduction’ to C.L.R. James, A History of Pan-African Revolt (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 1995), p. 27.

[57] C.L.R. James, ‘Revolution and the Negro’, in Scott McLemee and Paul Le Blanc (eds.), C.L.R. James and Revolutionary Marxism: Selected Writings of C.L.R. James, 1939-1949 (New York: Humanity Books, 2000), p. 77.

Christian Høgsbjerg
Christian Høgsbjerg
Christian Høgsbjerg is a historian who works at the University of Leeds. He is the author of ‘C.L.R. James in Imperial Britain’ (Duke University Press, 2014) and has edited and co-edited various works relating to or by C.L.R. James, including the forthcoming The Black Jacobins Reader (Duke University Press, 2016)
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Women observe a solar eclipse during an event organized by the Sudanese Society for Astronomy and Space Science on the banks of the Nile river in Khartoum November 3, 2013. Sky watchers across the world are in for a treat Sunday as the final solar eclipse of 2013 takes on a rare hybrid form.  REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah (SUDAN - Tags: ENVIRONMENT SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) - RTX14Z01