Swans Commentary » swans.com January 14, 2013  



The Pan-African Revolt: A History Within A History


by Paul Buhle


Book Review



A History of the Pan-African Revolt, by C.L.R. James, with an introduction by Robin D.G. Kelley. Oakland: PM Press, 2012, 136pp, $16.95 pbk


(Swans - January 14, 2013)   This is a history with a long and curious history of its own. A native Trinidadian born in 1901 from a schoolteacher father and novel-reading mother, C.L.R. James disappointed his parents badly by becoming a cricket fanatic rather than hard-striving student aimed at a legal or medical career. Jet black and dashingly handsome, the young man, already a cricket reporter in the 1920s, made his political mark first by objecting to race prejudice in the choice of a West Indies world test team: "They are no better than us!" Thereafter, as one-time novelist, one-time playwright (on the topic of the 1790s Haitian revolution, starring both himself and Paul Robeson in London of the middle 1930s), historian, philosopher, literary critic, and Pan African activist of note, James always had culture in his perspective. This inclination or calling made him fairly unique among Marxists; that he believed in the power of popular culture made him fairly rare, except of course in the Popular Front of Hollywood Reds, radical theater, and so on, zones distant from James's 1930s to '40s Trotskyism. Most rare was his theorizing of popular culture, something Communist writers did badly, with rare exceptions. Beyond a Boundary, which did not appear until 1963, was at once a masterful history of cricket and a history of people of color, across the world, who prepared themselves for national independence on the cricket field.

It is in this light that we can see best the contribution of this small volume, issued in Britain during the 1930s as A History of the Negro Revolt, then again by the Black Power movement in the U.S. under the new name (with a new final chapter by James), once again by the Charles H. Kerr Company in the 1990s and here, once more, in the new century. Scholars have since caught up with the particular historical significance of most the movements, incidents, and personalities described by James. But his way of seeing these, and the fact that he saw them so early, remains valuable for readers. So does the Introduction by outstanding black scholar Robin D. G. Kelley (much awarded for his recent biography of Thelonious Monk), who points out that this is in effect a group document: James gathered around himself in London of the 1930s some of the future leaders of the African and Caribbean political movements, and a few of the future leaders of the movements on the Indian subcontinent as well. He helped them work out their own ideas of independence, trained them in agitation, and generally took a large step forward from the Pan African beginnings of W.E.B. DuBois...and Marcus Garvey.

Garvey had been largely dismissed, in the ruling white press of several continents, as a crank and a crook. James had no illusions about Garvey or Garveyism, with its "Back to Africa" schemes. But he recognized a mass movement, above all in Harlem, for what it had been in its 1920s glory: a common sentiment, a collective cry, and a demand for freedom.

Kelley makes another, very large point about James's innovations: his embrace of the peasantry in ways that confronted the traditions of Marxism and prepared the way for Marxism's renewal in the 1960s and beyond. For US history alone, James sharpened DuBois's history of Reconstruction by suggesting it was a peasant bid for power and democracy, predictive of struggles across the Caribbean (including James's own Trinidad) but also in Africa and Asia. These were not the peasants of Marx's time (although Marx as well as Engels had underestimated them) so much as modern citizens of the world, despite their humble conditions. They had been making history since their first signs of revolt in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere. They were going to make a lot more in the time to come.


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About the Author

Paul Buhle retired from college teaching to produce radical comics fulltime. His latest include Studs Terkel's Working, A Graphic Adaptation [reviewed in these pages], The Beats, A People's History of the American Empire (aka an adaptation of Howard Zinn's classic) and a pictorial biography of his childhood hero, The Art of Harvey Kurtzman. His last production (2011) is Yiddishkeit: Jewish Vernacular & the New Land, edited with Harvey Pekar, and reviewed in these pages.   (back)


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Published January 14, 2013