CLR James was a Trinidadian historian, Marxist thinker, and sports journalist. The author of the famous history of the Haitian Revolution, “The Black Jacobins”, his thought contributed immensely to transforming Pan-Africanism from a political theory to a political movement fit for transplantation to the African experience. This is an extract from the article“CLR James and the place Marxism, Nationalism and Race in Theories of Pan-Africanism” in which Kai Mora outlines how James Marxism influenced his contributions to Pan-Africanism.
The association of James with Pan-Africanism is a recent phenomenon. His work with Marxist thought often eclipses his contributions to Pan-Africanism. However, James made considerable political and intellectual contributions to Pan-Africanism.
For example, during the invasion of Ethiopia by Italy in 1935, James founded the International African Friends of Abyssinia, the former name of Ethiopia or the IAFA, to protest against the inaction of the League of Nations which Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I had co-founded. During the invasion, James called for the unification of the Black world to support Ethiopia including by joining the Ethiopian army in the fight against Benito Mussolini; Benito Mussolini being the leader of the Italian invasion. Some members of the IAFA were notable Pan-Africanists like Amy Ashford Garvey, George Padmore, T. Ras Makonnen and Jomo Kenyatta.
In addition to this political organizing, CLR James contributed significantly to the intellectual world of Pan-Africanism. Born in 1901 and raised in Trinidad in the early 20th century, when it was still in the grip of British colonialism, James immersed himself in a range of humanities disciplines, and began writing fiction during his secondary studies at Queen’s Royal College in the Port of Spain, Trinidad’s capital. He migrated to England in 1932, only 3 years before the invasion of Ethiopia, took up as a cricket reporter for The Guardian, and gradually became exposed to the thickening political milieu that was heating up in the developing world and the metropoles. It was during his time in England that he began to develop his Trotskyism, a line of Marxist thought, which would become so influential to Pan-Africanism by proxy of James.
By the time of the Ethiopian invasion, James was fully equipped with his Trotskyist thought. As he networked within the Black intellectual and political world, he called for the political unity of the localized Black liberation movements that were vaguely tied by the solidarity of race and the ideal of nationhood. Trotskyism was a line of Marxist thought named after Leon Trotsky, a leading theoretician in the Russian Revolution. Trotskyism is the Marxist theory of ‘permanent revolution’ or the idea that a national revolution is not self-sustaining, and that in order for a national revolution to be successful, it must be accompanied by a multinational revolution because of the globalized capitalist economy which is dependent on the oppression of all developing countries.
This Trotskyist ideology became central to Pan-Africanism as it evolved into a political movement on the continent. James became a proxy for Trotskyist thought in Pan-Africanism, believing that Black liberation movements on the continent and in the diaspora must also in the same way be multinational to be successful. Pan-African political leaders like Kwame Nkrumah had also adopted this perspective as they led their individual nations to independence. Nkrumah embraced and adapted this Trotskyist outlook specifically to the African context and urged for transnational revolution, or the synthesizing of independent African nations into a politically and economically unified Africa.
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James had met Kwame Nkrumah at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in the 1930’s. As Nkrumah returned to lead Ghana to independence in 1947, James, like many other Pan-African thinkers who were witnessing Ghana’s uprising, felt that Ghana would lead the way to this political-economic unification of Africa. Trotskyism in Russia arose as a response to the bureaucratic, tyrannical approach of Stalinist-Marxism. In that Trotskyist vein, James was wary of a top-down approach to revolution. However, in Ghana, James saw the potential for grassroots revolution:
‘Such then were the people, they produced from themselves and their own resources the great body of their leaders. These were native-born and native-taught. Their very backwardness mobilised the people for the mighty self-propulsion forward. But to do this they needed all that the modern world had to teach them. This is what Nkrumah brought…’
This grassroots approach in Trotskyism is one of the most significant contributions to Pan-Africanism, by proxy of James. This is not to say that the grassroots approach was non-existent in Black liberation before, but while in the diaspora Pan-Africanism was once a theoretical exercise cultivated by a privileged class of Black intellectuals, James’ Trotskyist ideology and relationship with Nkrumah and other African leaders helped to bring Pan-Africanism out of the theoretical and into the practical.
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In a sense, James and his contemporaries were right not only about the wave of national independence movements Ghana would inspire across Africa, but about the Pan-African economic and political cooperation that would manifest after. Organizations like Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and of course, the Organization of African Unity (OAU)–which is still functioning today as the African Union (AU)–were all manifestations of this aim. The OAU was in part founded by Kwame Nkrumah and Emperor Haile Selassie, a true testament to the intellectual work of CLR James in the Pan-African movement.