The H3O/Art of Life Blog
C.L.R. James: A Pan-African Revolutionary Intellectual
By Dr. Josef Ben Levi
Presented by Omni-University
[Ancestor] C.L.R. James
I first became aware of the significance of the works of [Ancestor] Cyril Lionel Robert James while I was a student at a predominantly white university in the 1970's. Fortunately, I had already read- with great interest and pride -James' book, The Black Jacobins, which vividly described the story of the Black revolt in French San Domingo (known today as Haiti). The historical evidence of the connection between this Black revolt and the French Revolution enabled the other Black students and me to do battle with arrogant white professors who were determined to relegate the significance of this Black revolution to little more than a localized "slave" riot.
Another book by James, A History of Pan-African Revolt, contributed even more to our education in history. Somehow, predominantly white universities managed to come up with a few token courses in Black history (usually taught by someone trained in another field and "drafted" to teach a Black course as a means of silencing Black student’s demands for Black Studies courses).
C.L.R. James was born in Tunapuna, Trinidad, then a British Crown Colony. He was the first child of Elizabeth and Robert Alexander James, a schoolteacher. In 1910, he won a scholarship to Queen’s Royal College (QRC) in Port of Spain , the island's oldest non-Catholic secondary school. There he became a club cricketer and distinguished himself as an athlete. James would hold the Trinidad high-jump record at 5 feet 9 inches from 1918 to 1922. He was also beginning to write fiction.
After graduating, in 1918, from Queen's Royal College, he worked there as a teacher of English and History in the 1920s. Among those he taught was the young Eric Williams, who would become the first Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago. Together with Ralph de Boissiere, Alfred Gomes, and James Mendes, James was a member of the anti-colonialist "Beacon Group", a circle of writers associated with The Beacon magazine, in which he published a series of short stories.
For nearly forty years, C. L. R. James had been interested in the development of political consciousness among African people and in their strivings towards gaining and maintaining control over their own lives. As an analyst of processes in Africa, James qualifies to be called an "academic" or "intellectual" and, as a participant in the struggle for African advance, he represents a "revolutionary intellectual." It will be found that those who confine themselves to the supposedly "pure academic understanding of Africa" will, in fact, fall short of the objective because of the lack of commitment and failure to relate theory to practice. The value of James's contribution to the African Revolution and to an appreciation of it stems precisely from the blend of committed scholarship and activism.
During the 1930's, when the "Western Democracies" were conspiring to make Ethiopia into an Italian colony, James directed, from England, an ad hoc committee, the"International Friends of Ethiopia". This later emerged as the "International African Service Bureau" having James as editor of its journal, the "International African Opinion." The main platform of this journal was colonial liberation and it was against this background that James wrote "A History of Negro Revolt," in 1938. This book is a mine of ideas advancing far ahead of it's time. However, it bears the marks of those years when even Black militants, inside and outside Africa, accepted the language of the European oppressor, i.e., "Negro," "natives," "tribes," etc.
James began his section on "Revolts in Africa" by citing what historians have come to call (rather disparagingly) the Sierra Leone Hut Tax War of 1898. As James explained, it was a reaction by indigenous Sierra Leone peoples against the imposition of European colonial rule symbolized by the enactment of legislation taxing dwelling places. It was a war of national resistance and liberation, involving the majority of the ethnic groups in Sierra Leone in unified struggle. Many years elapsed before any researcher seriously undertook investigation of this historical event.
Not only were African Independent Churches neglected as an area of enquiry for many years but, when they were first studied or assessed by Europeans, there was a tendency to portray them as being exclusively related to religion or superstition. They were often presented, by Christian missionaries, as the work of the devil while other social researchers came up with such mystifying terms as "millenarian"*, "messianic" and "atavistic" **. James's treatment was very brief, but he captured the essence of these anti-colonial African mass movements in a few lines. He recognized them as revolts against oppression and as part of the socio-political protest engendered by the presence of the Europeans and the system of colonialism.
He 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 labor, land alienation, and colonial taxation. It was because the leadership had formal schooling from missionaries that they expressed themselves primarily in religious terms. As James put it, "Such education as the African is given is nearly always religious, so that the leader often translated the insurrection into religious terms. To every African [independent church organization] is an instinctive step towards independence and away from the perpetual control of Europeans.
In the 1960's, European scholarship on Africa was ostensibly more liberal and more concerned with the history of Africans rather than the activity of Europeans in Africa. Yet, standard general works carried scarcely a hint of the tremendous armed struggle waged by Africans in the late 19th century before falling to the European enemy. It is only very recently that this topic has begun to receive the attention it deserves from African and European historians dealing with the continent in that period. ( It is interesting to note that individuals like James and George Padmore never received credit or acknowledgement from later writers). The same applies to the subject of African independent churches and to the self-mobilization by the small wage-earner class in colonial Africa.
A people's consciousness is heightened by knowledge of the dignity and determination of their forebears. Indeed, the African worldview regarding ancestors as an integral part of the living community makes it so much easier to identify a given generation with the struggles of an earlier generation. One of the many facets of the career of Mzee C. L. R. James is precisely the awareness that African freedom will not be won without building on the positive elements in the history of Man. This is a propitious moment for restating that proposition, because it can be placed in the present, firmly established context that the portion of history most relevant to us is the history of Man in Africa and of Africans in world affairs.
*millenarian- the belief by a religious,social or political group or movement in a coming transformation of society, after which" all things will be changed.
**atavistic- relating to, or characterized by reversion to something ancient or ancestral.
 Mzee- Kiswahili for Ancestor or Elder.
[Ancestor] Walter Rodney, The African Revolution, Urgent Tasks No. 12
Noel Ignatin, Meeting in Chicago, Urgent Tasks - Number 12, Summer 1981. https://web.archive.org/web/20190328064650/http://www.sojournertruth.net/meeting.htm
[Ancestor] C.L.R. James.(1989). The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. New York: Vantage Books.
[Ancestor] C.L.R. James. (1969). A History of Pan-African Revolt. Washington D.C.: Drum and Spear Press.