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Conscripts of modernity The tragedy of colonial enlightenment
By David Scott
Duke University Press
Chapter One Futures Past
Tranquillity to-day is either innate (the philistine) or to be acquired only by a deliberate doping of the personality. It was in the stillness of a seaside suburb that could be heard most clearly and insistently the booming of Franco's heavy artillery, the rattle of Stalin's firing squads and the fierce shrill turmoil of the revolutionary movement striving for clarity and influence. Such is our age and this book is of it, with something of the fever and the fret. Nor does the writer regret it. The book is the history of a revolution and written under different circumstances it would have been a different but not necessarily a better book.
These, of course, are the memorable closing sentences of the preface to the first edition of C. L. R. James's incomparable work of anticolonial revolutionary history, The Black Jacobins, published in 1938. They are unforgettable sentences. But they are unforgettable not only because of the indignation that edges them, or the defiance that surrounds them, or the resolve that breathes through them. They are unforgettable also because they so vividly, so palpably, so proximately, and so self-consciously locate James at the dramatic scene of his history-writing. They situate James in a singular way in relation to the historical experience thatmakes up his living present and the aspirations that animate his utopian hopes for a possible alternative future. The creative and intellectual labor of political-historical reconstruction that constitutes The Black Jacobins-and constitutes it as the kind of narrative that it is-is inseparable from those unfolding dramas he evokes and inscribes into the unnatural stillness of his seaside tableau.
Notice the implicit reference in the quoted passage to Wordsworth's famous description of the ideal conditions of poetic creation in his preface to the Lyrical Ballads. And notice too the allusion to the aesthetic intensity of Keats's weary melancholy in "Ode to a Nightingale." As we know especially from his later autobiographical sketches, the English Romantics and the idea of "poetry as criticism of life" constituted a significant part of James's intellectual self-fashioning in the 1920s in Trinidad. Revolutionary that he had become by the time he wrote The Black Jacobins in London in the 1930s, however, it is understandable that he should have been impatient with the desire of the English Romantics to withdraw into an artificial tranquility, to "fade" and "dissolve" into that seductive silence far away from the cacophony of social and political upheaval that surrounded them in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Like him, after all, Wordsworth and Coleridge and Keats and Shelley (to name only some of the Romantic poets whose trace one finds in The Black Jacobins) lived and wrote in a time of revolution and reaction. At the same time, however, and in a way so characteristic of James's poetics, the passage is not without a finely tuned ambiguity of literary-critical affiliation and commitment. For in establishing the militantly disenchanted tone and literary-historical register of his own revolutionary discontent, James is also drawing deeply here on the moral sensibilities, aesthetic ideas, and subversive energies of these very Romantics themselves, on their ideal of redemptive heroism as much as their republican and antislavery politics. Most important of all though, the passage shows us James drawing on the Romantics' (almost defining) preoccupation with the peculiar mimetic powers of the imagination, its expansive capacity to transcend time and distance and to open itself to a selfless and sympathetic connection with the suffering and struggles of others. This relation between imaginative identification and historical reconstruction is at the heart of the literary-political genius of The Black Jacobins.
THE HISTORICAL SIGNIFIERS James references in the closing sentences of his preface are vividly iconic. The Spanish Civil War had opened on July 17, 1936, with the generals' coup against the newly elected Popular Front government, the Second Spanish Republic, and, with the help of Mussolini's Italy and Hitler's Germany, would eventually (in March 1939) see the Nationalists under Francisco Franco come to power. For a whole generation born around the early years of the twentieth century, the Republican War (as it is sometimes called) was an arousing and emblematic war, gathering and compressing in the ferocity of the three-year conflict all the ideological confrontations that were beginning to define-and disfigure-the twentieth century: the confrontation between Left and Right, capitalism and communism, fascism and democracy, tradition and progress. Many volunteers risked their lives for Spanish Republicans, and some, like the critic Christopher Caudwell, were killed in battle. As George Orwell (one of the volunteers to fight and return) was to show in his firsthand account, Homage to Catalonia, and in the several reviews he wrote during 1937 and 1938, the war simultaneously exposed the political and diplomatic bankruptcy of the liberal democratic West and its Non-Intervention Agreement (sponsored by Britain and France), and the kinds of duplicity, treachery, and murder in which the Communist International (even as it organized and helped to sustain the International Brigades) stood ready and willing to engage to stamp out what was left of the revolution. It was James's war too, if at a somewhat greater distance than for Orwell. In 1937 he wrote a short, insurgent preface to Mary Low's and Juan Brea's Red Spanish Notebook in which the revolutionary heroism of the Trotskyist POUM (Unified Marxist Workers' Party) is praised. "They will conquer," James wrote with lyrical determination. "They must. If not to-day then to-morrow, by whatever tortuous and broken roads, despite the stumblings and the falls." It was, if nothing else, more programmatic (and less self-serving) than W. H. Auden's memorable "yes, I am Spain." Reflecting back on this historical moment, Eric Hobsbawm, whose orthodox (communist) political sympathies were never James's (nor, of course, Orwell's), is perhaps nevertheless seeing from a generational perspective roughly shared by his elder when he writes: "What Spain meant to liberals and those on the Left who lived through the 1930s, is now difficult to remember, though for many of us the survivors, now all past the Biblical life-span, it remains the only political cause which, even in retrospect, appears as pure and compelling as it did in 1936."
Not so the legacy of the Russian Revolution of October 1917. Here the ambiguities came early, and remained. The rise of Stalin's dictatorship over the Communist Party of the Soviet Union after Lenin's death in January 1924, his gradual ascendancy over the Communist International, and his declaration of the policy of "Socialism in One Country" represented for many who identified themselves with the emancipatory ideals of Marxism the beginning of the end of the hope in Russia of providing leadership for the anticipated worldwide revolution. Stalin moved rapidly to diminish the space of dissent, moving first against his principal rival, Trotsky, and the so-called Left Opposition. They were effectively defeated between 1927 and 1928, when Trotsky was, in succession, expelled from the party and exiled to Alma-Ata in Kazakhstan. Next came the turn of Stalin's erstwhile associates among the so-called Right Opposition, in particular Nikolai Bukharin and Alexei Rykov. A formidable Bolshevik, Bukharin was not only the theoretician of the New Economic Policy and the architect of "Socialism in One Country," he was also head of the Comintern and chief editor of Pravda. Between 1928 and 1929 both Bukharin and Rykov were "exposed" as enemies of the party and removed from their positions. But by the 1930s, Stalin, more secure in power and more determined to eliminate all conditions of opposition, turned his mind from mere denunciation and expulsion to liquidation. The first Moscow trial of the Great Purges was held in August 1936 when Lev Kamenev and Grigorii Zinoviev (heading a group of sixteen defendants) were sentenced to death and executed. The second Moscow trial was held in January 1937 (with Karl Radek heading the seventeen defendants). The last and perhaps the most famous of the trials was held in March 1938 when Rykov and Bukharin (among twenty-one defendants) were tried and put to death. Again, the significance of these events must be difficult to grasp for those of us who grew up in what Hobsbawm calls the moral milieu of the late twentieth century. After all, even as they occurred, many-especially many communists-found the reports of the trials too fantastic to believe. James and his colleagues, however, immediately read a sinister portent into the events unfolding in the Soviet Union. Reflecting on the fates of Zinoviev and Kamenev in what would be the seminal history of the Communist International, World Revolution (published in April 1937), James asks with prescient if ominous irony: "What insurance company would risk a penny on Bukharin's life?"
In January 1929, Trotsky was deported from the Soviet Union. Within a few years, however, there had emerged around him (or at least around his name and his work) pockets of an independent Marxist movement-the International Left Opposition, headquartered in Paris-seeking after a vocabulary in which to rethink the revolutionary socialist project. Trotsky's writings (a constant stream of articles and books, first from Turkey, then from Norway, and finally from Mexico) became an important source for an alternative Marxist account and assessment of the situation inside the Soviet Union as well as elsewhere. Especially important, of course, was the publication of his History of the Russian Revolution (translated into English by the indefatigable and much maligned American Trotskyist, Max Eastman), the first volume of which appeared in 1932, and the second and third in 1933. James has famously described his encounter with this work soon after his arrival in Britain where the atmosphere of Left politics was rapidly transforming. In the grim years following the 1926 General Strike, political discussion and organization in a Trotskyist direction began to emerge, first inside the almost supinely Stalinist Communist Party of Great Britain (in the Balham Group of Reg Groves, Henry Sara, Harry Wicks, and others), but more importantly around the Independent Labour Party (ILP). Founded in 1893 by the Scottish labor leader Keir Hardie, the ILP maintained an often strained and fragile alliance with the Labour Party for decades, but became more Left-leaning after its break with them (spearheaded by Fenner Brockway and James Maxton) in 1932. By his own account, C. L. R. James had briefly been a member of the Labour Party in Nelson and (subsequently) London, but as he put it, when the Trotskyists decided to go into the ILP he went with them. A number of small Trotskyist groups (each with no more than a handful of adherents) came into being around this time, and James found himself at the center of one of them, the so-called Marxist Group. They were involved in fierce sectarian squabbles with each other over the correct line to take on the world-historical matters of the day: the German question and the role of Stalin in facilitating Hitler's rise to power; the question of whether to enter the Labour Party or build an independent proletarian movement; the question of the formation of a Fourth International; and very importantly for James, Mussolini's invasion of Abyssinia on October 3, 1935.
Indeed, Mussolini's occupation of Abyssinia (a matter of considerable embarrassment to the British government, eager as they were to show colonial rule in a tasteful, benevolent, and progressive light) became a flashpoint for anti-imperialist and anticolonialist agitation and organization. In Britain in the early 1930s, critical discussion of race and Empire (such as it was) was carried on principally by Harold Moody's League of Coloured Peoples (LCP). Founded in 1931 at least partly on the moderate liberal-reformist model of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in the United States and involving concerned West Indians in Britain such as the writer Una Marson and the economist W. Arthur Lewis, the LCP campaigned against racial prejudice and lobbied for racial justice. Its magazine, The Keys, carried in its symbolic name Moody's interracial aspirations and his hopes for opening up avenues of opportunity for black people. However, Mussolini's ambition-driven invasion of the ancient African kingdom and the pitiful flight of the emperor, Haile Selassie, altered the character and mood of black and anticolonial sentiment in Britain as well as across the black diaspora, and called into being a more radical response. C. L. R. James, who had spoken at meetings of the LCP and was already an incipient advocate of self-government for the colonies when he left Trinidad with the manuscript of The Life of Captain Cipriani, was to be a central part of furnishing that response. He wrote several articles in the ILP's weekly paper, New Leader, and in The Keys, denouncing the invasion and the spineless response of the League of Nations. "Mussolini, the British Government and the French," James wrote, "have shown the Negro only too plainly that he has got nothing to expect from them but exploitation, either naked or wrapped in bluff. In that important respect this conflict, though unfortunate for Abyssinians, has been of immense benefit to the race as a whole." In 1934, as the crisis in Abyssinia was emerging, James founded the International African Friends of Abyssinia to generate awareness and concern about the imminent threat. In the following year, with his childhood friend and ex-Communist George Padmore in the lead, this was transformed into the International African Service Bureau, an organization with the broader aim of agitating against British imperialism. James served as the editor of its periodical, International African Opinion. In these years, the focus of concern among black intellectuals in Britain was the decolonization of Africa. Even though labor riots were erupting across the West Indies as James and his colleagues carried on their opposition, the expectation was that it would be in Africa that the anticolonial struggle would bear the first fruits of victory. As he would later say, he wrote The Black Jacobins as part of the preparation for the African revolution that Padmore was calling for.
SUCH THEN, JAMES suggests, was the age of The Black Jacobins; such were the events and circumstances, the insurgent and counterinsurgent context of argument, organization, and activism against the background of which in the 1930s he researched and wrote his account of Toussaint Louverture and the San Domingo Revolution. These events and circumstances convey a sense of the intersection of ideological and political terrains-revolution and reaction in Europe, on the one hand, and the incipient black and anticolonial struggles, on the other-in relation to which James was preparing his work. But more than this, they suggest James's acute sense that he stood in the stream of a historical momentum, his strong faith that he was moving in a certain historical direction, which, even where interrupted or blocked, would work its course toward a better future. This was the view-looking forward-from 1938.
But that world-historical moment, with its distinctive fever and fret, belongs to James's historical present in a way that it does not-because it cannot-belong to ours. That moment of social, political, and ideological upheaval framed by the Spanish Civil War, the Moscow trials, and the emerging revolutionary anti-Stalinist and anticolonial movements defined for James, in a distinctive cognitive-political vocabulary and through a range of institutional and organizational alternatives, a horizon of possible futures that are not, any longer, ours to imagine, let alone seek after and inhabit. Indeed that horizon of possible futures toward which James looked (now with confident anticipation, now with anxious foreboding, but always with a sense of fervent expectation and hope) defines for us, two generations on, a present that is rapidly receding; a present, one might say, that is rapidly becoming our past. James's erstwhile future, so to put it, is our disappearing present. In a way-the implications of which have yet to be adequately formulated, much less adequately explored-these historical presents are now, as Reinhart Koselleck would call them, former futures. They are "futures past." For who today can hear around them, except as a fading and altogether nostalgic echo, the sounds that reverberated militantly through those interwar years, fashioning the revolutionary utopian spaces of nation and socialism in which James researched and composed his historical narrative about slave emancipation in San Domingo? Today nation and socialism do not name visionary horizons of new beginnings any of us can look toward as though they were fresh thresholds of aspiration and achievement to be fought for and progressively arrived at; to the contrary, they name forms of existing social and political reality whose normative limits we now live as the tangible ruins of our present, the congealing context of our postcolonial time.
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