A History of Pan-African Revolt in Insurgent Notes

by Matthew Quest
Insurgent Notes
June 3, 2012

A small and dangerous volume, this republication of C.L.R. James’s A History of Pan-African Revolt is a concise survey of Black freedom struggles in the United States, the Caribbean, and on the African continent from 1739–1969. A product of two periods in his life and work, his first British years (1932–38) where he emerged as the author of The Black Jacobins, the classic history of the Haitian Revolution; and his second American sojourn (1969–79) where he was a mentor to Black Power activists who had been members of SNCC, the Black Panther Party, and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers; this book documents famous and obscure race and class struggles in two parts written from the vantage of 1939 and 1969 respectively.

While some scholars have misunderstood this slim text as perhaps among James’s least original works for its dependence on his past Haitian Revolution research, comrades in the International African Service Bureau such as George Padmore, Jomo Kenyatta, and Issac Wallace Johnson, and silent reliance on W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction and other’s scholarship; those who repeatedly have commended it as timeless have arguably not assessed properly the innovative power of the book either.

Pioneering in how it depicted intellectual and social movement history among peoples of African descent, it was not without its limitations. However, what makes A History of Pan African Revolt enchanting is the thread of speculative philosophy that holds the assorted anecdotal historical commentaries on labor strikes, anti-racist rebellions, heroic personalities, and anti-colonial events together. A vision of Black autonomy, James depicts peoples of African descent thinking and acting for themselves as they pursue their own emancipation through movements of their own invention. From a contemporary perspective, we must be careful that this is not received by readers as a cheap platitude.

First written at the dawn of modern anti-colonial revolt for Africa and the Caribbean, it is true that this historical work was distinguished by a collection of ideas ahead of its time. The first incarnation not only anticipated his famous speech “A Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Problem in the USA” (1948) which inspired the African American autoworker James Boggs, and later led white socialists to identify with Black Nationalists such as Robert Williams and Malcolm X. For those familiar with James’s Notes on Dialectics (1948), and its survey of the Puritan, French, and Russian Revolutions, in an attempt to sum up the spontaneity and organization of the toiling masses in socialist and democratic movements in Europe; A History of Pan-African Revolt, without the abstract discussion of Hegelian categories of cognition, might be re-evaluated as a dynamic kindred work.

Early (and even contemporary) studies of people of color tended to struggle to break away from racial categories of contempt and pity (and preoccupations with what white people were doing and saying—whether nice or not nice—and how Black people were to react). This often led to an impediment—the specifying of autonomous criteria for valuing the beauty in Black cultures and the content of people of color’s self-government was often neglected. That all Black people must do is “stay black and die,” while a common refrain, cannot be the basis for such assessments. Neither that Black people always had their own philosophies and cultures and were thus human. Something else was required.

James, while emphasizing people of African descent, even under the status of slaves, “brought themselves” to the Americas, recognized Black people brought notions of moral philosophy, family forms, languages, and artisan and agricultural skills with them and learned to innovate under adversity in the face of new technological challenges and cultural environments. At its best A History of Pan African Revolt, informed unevenly by his affinity for direct democracy and worker self-management, takes a bigger leap forward than most realize. It traces ruptures not merely with mischaracterizations of Black humanity but also with nation-states, ruling elites, and ordinary party politics.

Repeatedly, James shows political treachery, in the age of white supremacy and empire, was not a monopoly of the white race alone. He anticipated the post-colonial moment where some people of color saw their new role in hierarchal representative government as the culmination of what for them was perceived as otherwise an already satisfactory existence without disturbing the empire of capital. James also saw Black freedom struggles as necessarily making evaluations not just on the terms of Black autonomy but the potential of multi-racial alliances.

A sharp reading of James’s A History of Pan African Revolt reveals that his outlook on direct democracy and national liberation struggles at times intersect. Where they do not, that in its own way is an education in history and politics. James was willing to stretch his categories of radical political thought to accommodate Black mass movements and rebellious expressions that the average Marxist or historical materialist (and even himself) might be uncomfortable with. Still, at his best, James rarely did this without criticism of past historical movements or the political thought of others. By this means he advanced these struggles or their representative power as historical lessons. Yet he did not do this as an innovative “Black Marxist” to break with the limits of European socialism around race matters—for that is to reduce James to a fragment of the man.

James, a dynamic partisan of world revolution, constantly made strategic and philosophical adjustments in how he evaluated Russia, Britain, France, Germany, or the Age of the CIO to point the way forward for American and European workers’ self-emancipation, as distinct from people of color, as well. James was not a narrow expert on what was once called “the Negro Question” but told European socialists when he thought they were wrong about the self-emancipating nature of their own working class and the democratic legacies of their own civilizations (of both of which he was quite fond). Not a hegemony theorist, James never spoke of the false consciousness of toilers—regardless of color. He believed recognizing what he termed mass movements’ “partial mistakes” allowed for the later completion of insurgent historical moments which at times became derailed for a decade or even an epoch. To be sure, he did not advocate these delays, but saw himself as facilitating the overcoming of the next social hurdle. Let us take note of these dynamics as they function in this fine work.

The Stono Rebellion of 1739 of South Carolina, which was ultimately defeated, is an opportunity for James to evaluate a slave revolt where white slave masters were killed (but a kind one was allowed to live), property was burned, a military garrison is seized, and a strategic plan to flee across the international border with Spanish Florida where Angolan ancestral affinity is a potential motivation for an alliance. The Haitian Revolution is recognized as an inspiration to a slave revolt which failed to take place in Louisiana of 1795, where whites were allies from the beginning and disputes over strategy and method made the specter of it memorable. Gabriel’s Revolt, a slave insurrection outside Richmond, Virginia, gathered thousands of slaves who, with clubs and sharpened swords, intended to massacre the whites. But it was decided to exclude Frenchmen and Quakers for their perceived politics and strategic sympathies. Elements of contingency, chance storms which flooded rivers and tore down the bridges impeded events. James always depicted slave revolts as not embarrassing outbreaks of anger and violence but the work of African Americans who had original organizational and strategic capacities and moral philosophies. Importantly, he did not manufacture a cheap heroism to justify future capitalist politicians in their civil rights and welfare policies. For James could see how this suppressed more contemporary visions of Black self-emancipation.

Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner are seen as theologians with different political implications. Vesey is seen as having a prophetic vision that insisted all those who opposed the uprising must be killed and who was betrayed by collaborationist house servants. Turner’s revolt, which massacred women and children, is viewed as having linkages to rebellious poor whites. James sees Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad as a change in tactics which anticipated the success of the Union Army in the Civil War.

James is innovative in highlighting labor strikes in Sierra Leone and South Africa.

He unevenly recognizes, but was far ahead of his time, aspects of religious rebellion in the Congo’s Simon Kimbangu or the John Chilembe led rising in Nyasaland (later Malawi). He seems to minimize aspects of the spirit unnecessarily in a nevertheless intriguing materialist reading of Kenya’s Harry Thuku Revolt of 1921 as a general strike. He shows famous statesmen such as Kwame Nkrumah and Jomo Kenyatta being pushed from behind by the African masses’ self-organization, compelling colonizers to release them from jail to govern, even where the colonizer militarily defeats profound insurgencies such as the Mau Mau rebellion (1952–56) led by Dedan Kimathi. He does not let on that British colonialism also disoriented Nkrumah’s Positive Action campaign of 1950.

We might rethink the notion that the British were forced to release Nkrumah and Kenyatta from jail. Just as the case of Nelson Mandela’s later release from prison and collaboration with F.W. DeKlerk, they lifted the struggle to the moral plane emphasizing they “suffered without bitterness.” But they also propped up Black capitalism each in their own way (in collaboration with multi-nationals) at the expense of insurgent Black workers and farmers. James never highlighted that Mau Mau leaders like Kimathi and Bildad Kaggia, who was a defender of the landless, were betrayed by Kenyatta at the post-colonial moment. Further, that Nkrumah early on in state power purged radical labor leaders such as Pobee Biney of the Sekondi-Takoradi dockworkers, who really pushed Nkrumah from behind into the Positive Action campaign. Biney later inspired the 1961 general strike against Nkrumah’s regime. This labor action, and the mass discontent it represented, should have revealed a reassessment of Nkrumah’s regime, long before the 1966 coup often blamed too narrowly on the CIA, elite Ashanti ethnic leaders, and a military plot alone.

James’s discussion of the period of the great strikes across the Caribbean from 1934–39 is interesting for its highlighting of Adrian Cola Rienzi (Krishna Deodarine), an Indo-Trinidadian, as a major labor leader of the era which should be brought to the attention of Pan-African audiences. His more famous Afro-Trinidadian comrade, whom James was to valorize later in his sojourns in Caribbean party politics, was Uriah Butler.

James’s discussion of the Marcus Garvey movement is profound for his capacity to tease out the kernel of desire for provisional government that this huge Black mass movement represented while discarding the conservative and capitalist tendencies of its leader. He accomplished this in an era where the standard approach of socialist people of color toward Garvey was to viciously denounce the personality allowing for little validity of the independent self-mobilization behind it.

Robin Kelley’s introduction to this volume shows the evolving publication history from A History of Negro Revolt to A History of Pan African Revolt in global social movement context and highlights some interesting dynamics. He restores James’s pioneering leadership as a coordinator of global resistance to the Italian invasion of Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia (1935–41) as a major context for the first crafting of this volume in 1938–39. Yet close readers will observe remarkably that James did not write an Ethiopia section for the part which discussed Africa, with these events seemingly fresh on his mind. What are we to make of this? In a brief instance, in the part on Caribbean revolts, he acknowledged that the plight of Ethiopia heightened the consciousness of militant labor action against empire in Trinidad. James underlined that the majority of peoples of African descent everywhere had the mistaken conviction that Ethiopia was treated badly on account of race. Certainly, James was aware that colonialism had racism and capitalism intertwined as causes for the denial of self-government. But this fragment suggested James held deep beliefs, with complex nuances, on how national liberation struggles were to be understood, that are still not grasped by most scholars and activists who are fond of him.

Kelley’s approach, which seeks to reconcile James, the anti-Stalinist and libertarian socialist, and African American and Caribbean communists affiliated with Moscow through a “Black Marxism” framework around the Ethiopia Question cannot principally highlight James’s ultimate clash with his associates in Pan African activism over the need for “workers’ sanctions” (not League of Nations or later United Nations sanctions). Peace, James insisted, unlike Popular Front communists, could not be genuinely sponsored by imperialists such as Britain or the United States. Dockworkers and maritime workers regardless of race, like his comrades the seamen from Barbados, Chris Jones and Arnold Ward, could implement their own embargo against Italian trade and goods through direct action.

It would be a mistake to assume that “workers’ sanctions” uncritically borrowed from a narrow European Marxism. All over the African world, people of color volunteered, including James, to go to Ethiopia to fight the Italians, as a group of multi-racial volunteers did in the Spanish Civil War. However, Ethiopia was not for James a matter of a thin Black solidarity. James assessed Selassie and his foreign minister, Dr. Martin, as selling out the popular self-mobilization of the Black masses on a world scale for an alliance with the European and American imperialists. It is true the imperialists made a mockery of “collective security,” and degraded the Ethiopian regime as less than their peer, and made them wait to have their rights, as a manager of Black labor, restored.

James unlike most Black communists and Pan Africanists wished to expose and encourage not merely the overthrow of Italian colonizers, but as well Emperor Haile Selassie, who would later be viewed as omnipotent by the Rastafarian movement. James could not stay loyal to a Black-led state power, whatever the insults of white imperialism, where it was not perceived by him as consistently cultivating mass development and unleashing the popular will. James was so disappointed with the Pan African movement’s inability to look for the self-organization of the Ethiopian rank and file, in contrast to the personality of Selassie, he never directly addressed that solidarity movement in this narrative.

Ethiopian solidarity does shadow the conclusion to James’s The Black Jacobins, written the year before, and his sarcastic depiction of Dessalines being crowned emperor, a proxy for Selassie’s coming restoration, with the assistance of the forces of Anglo-American capital in Haiti. As a foreshadowing of a self-emancipating future for Africa in 1938–39, James looked to obscure Africans’ mutinies and general strikes, linking up with Black and white workers abroad, seemingly beyond nation-states and their aspiring rulers.

The Ethiopian context of A History of Pan African Revolt can only be easily incorporated into a unitary framework of “Black Marxism” by willfully ignoring, if documenting at times, James’s political differences with George Padmore, Jomo Kenyatta, and Ras Makonnen within the International African Service Bureau, but also Paul Robeson’s and W.E.B. Du Bois’s Council on African Affairs, on how to approach national liberation struggles in the 1930s through the 1950s. For example, Padmore’s advocacy of class struggle in Ethiopia against Selassie before the Popular Front era and James’s criticism of Padmore after the Popular Front, for changing his view, and looking for “progressive” opinion among the imperialist rulers is documented by Kelley. Yet, this for Kelley, does not make the paradigm of a Black radical tradition, which purportedly never minimized Black rank and file resistance in contrast to European Marxists, implode on itself. Revisionist accounts, while not always bad, can minimize important facts. Of course, James in his elder years was silent on these differences over Selassie’s Ethiopia, partially as a result of his strategy of triangulation between statesmen and radical activists to build the Sixth Pan African Congress in Tanzania, and thus his experience of Ethiopian politics in the 1930s could not even be amplified even from the vantage of 1969 for this study.

At times, Kelley asks challenging questions that the reader should consider carefully. Indeed, James’s valorization of Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere as making the greatest contributions to radical thought on peasants since Lenin is very peculiar on a number of levels. These include, as Kelley points out, ignoring labor revolt and radical dissent suppressed by Nyerere’s regime including the most autonomous Ujamaa village councils, such as the Ruvuma Development Association. But also Nyerere can truly be said to have an affinity for Lenin’s last writings on the peasantry, as James underscores validly. Yet James and Kelley overstate the value of Lenin’s writings and obscures how dictatorial the Russian leaders’ policies actually were toward workers and farmers.

James, as a writer of Caribbean short stories and his novel Minty Alley, published before the first edition of the classic under consideration, highlighted the self-activity of unemployed and low wage single mothers, their theologies and interaction with patriarchal forces. Between the two editions of Pan African Revolt, James did some interesting theorizing which began to see the power of Ghana’s market women and Kenya’s peasant women behind Nkrumah’s and Kenyatta’s shadows. He attempted to present their own terms of being and ways of knowing as self-emancipating processes that audiences of so-called modern politics, in their backwardness, still strain to comprehend. We must note that, except for brief mention of Harriet Tubman, Black women’s role in the process of Black self-emancipation was underrepresented in this particular volume.

James’s brief survey of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Little Rock school desegregation, Greensboro’s first lunch counter sit-ins, Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael and SNCC, and the Black Panthers places their politics on the world stage of historical significance without offering the type of insight he more silently shared with younger colleagues in that generation. James is at his most bold and transparent when he looks at the meaning of the urban uprisings of 1964–68 culminating in the rebellion in Washington, DC.

After King was assassinated, the US military defended key government buildings but otherwise conceded the burning city to the insurgent Black masses. James concludes that, despite fear of a conservative white backlash against Black Power, the American rulers could not consistently mobilize white racism against the just demands of Black radicals and the white youth and students who were their allies. In 1969, in this text, he does not speak of white workers as allies—it was becoming increasingly unfashionable. James insisted to suppress the Black movement in its totality is to destroy the American nation root and branch. Of course Black freedom struggles were attacked, officially and unofficially, but James’s diagnostic analysis of the mode of rule in the United States of 1969 concluded correctly that soon a more ethnically plural and multi-cultural approach to managing the crisis of race and class struggles would emerge. In the meantime, he marveled at the advance in Black political thought among the masses which rising up against police brutality suggested, while most at the time could only see embarrassing “riots” and “racial disturbances.”

Kelley’s suggestion that James evolved from an emphasis on Black labor revolt in the 1930s to a more heterogeneous emphasis that included Black middle class forces and intellectuals in the Black Power era is prescient on one level. However, the publication date of the revised edition in 1969 by the Center for Black Education and Drum and Spear Collective in Washington, DC, led by Jimmy Garrett and Charlie Cobb, veterans of the Black Panthers and SNCC, predated the emergence of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers (LRBW) in Detroit the same year.

We might conclude by placing this work in conversation with that movement and moment.

James was very influential on the LRBW but the terms of how he came to be are still obscure. James’s comrades George Rawick and Martin Glaberman, and his former comrades James Boggs and Grace Lee, did facilitate study groups and mentor the core of who became the leadership of the League. While his vision of workers’ self-management and rejection of vanguard parties are often seen as the basis of James’s influence, prominent LRBW leaders overwhelmingly did not share those politics, despite being against capitalism, managers in industrial workplaces, and white-led trade union hierarchy.

Instead, James influenced more marginal members and secondary leaders of the LRBW to approach his more advanced direct democratic perspectives through their Pan-African cultural nationalism, which in the late 1960s and early 1970s was perceived by many falsely as inherently in conflict with class struggle perspectives. Critiques of European arrogance or ignorance of African ontologies, philosophies, languages, and history need not be a façade of Black capitalist politics whose adherents masquerade as advocates for the welfare of the masses of the Black renters and wage earners. Not incompatible with a vision of workers control, reconfiguring one’s identity and psychology out from under white supremacist degradation is not a small matter for all human beings.

In fact, the LRBW members James influenced toward direct democracy, such as Modibo Kadalie and Kimathi Mohamed, saw in the earlier part of James’s Pan African Revolt a vision of independent labor which was “black enough” and spoke to their needs in a way that his uncritical valorization of Huey Newton in this same book did not. James once lectured an LRBW audience in 1971 where Kadalie and Mohamed were present. James was explaining his own unique understanding of dialectic, and how this was the method he used to come up with “the Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Problem” in 1948.

James pointed out in 1948 the instinctive proclivity of African Americans for independent politics inspired the most radical among the industrial working class. Black folks’ elemental political drive called into question capitalism, imperialism, and the neutrality of the state.

James said few back then saw the merit of the perspective he had worked out through proper observation and speculative method. One can say the same thing for this classic on Pan African Revolt under consideration.

James underscored, in his lecture to LRBW cadre, everyone was impressed with his analysis of 1948 in 1971—but this evaluation was a breakthrough decades ago. James told them, they would have to work out their own perspective for their own historical moment. This implied those old categories of thought, even James’s own, could not properly explain the post-civil rights, post-colonial moment which was emerging. If one desired to have dynamic and current political thought, James’s philosophical method for interpreting history, he emphasized, may be of value.

When the meaning of Kadalie’s purging from the staff of the LRBW, and Kimathi Mohamed’s writing in 1974 of the neglected classic Organization and Spontaneity: The Theory of the Vanguard Party and its Application to the Black Movement Today (which was dedicated to Mzee CLR James—Mzee is a Swahili title for revered elders) is properly considered, the intellectual legacies of A History of Pan African Revolt become larger.

This concise classic speculative philosophy and historical narrative placed in the service of Black revolution will charm scholars and activists, despite at times being inconsistent in its post-colonial criticism, and introduce new readers to a worldview that still can disturb authority and inform a new beginning.

Readers though must bring an outlook, which James strived to promote, that starts with the achievements of past freedom movements, the highest standards they set, and inquires about past mistakes made, to understand properly where to begin anew. A History of Pan African Revolt provides a foundation.

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