CLR James: From Trotskyism to Pan-Africanism

14 October 2019

Over 80 years ago, CLR James’ remarkable work, The Black Jacobins was published in London. Its author openly intended his book to “stimulate the coming emancipation of Africa”. And indeed it did, playing a part in developing a movement of young black intellectuals in London, who were paralleled by similar figures in Paris and New York.

Many, influenced by Marxism and Lenin’s Imperialism, began to theorise the role slavery had played in the emergence of capitalism; how Britain and the other colonising powers had carved up and now ruled Africa, plundering its natural resources and the labour of its people.

They also developed the idea of the necessity for pan-African solidarity in the struggle against both colonialism and the baleful legacy of slavery on both sides of the Atlantic. Their location in the heartlands of the system allowed a cross fertilisation of ideas among militants from the Caribbean and North America as well as from Africa. One such was CLR James.

Cyril Lionel Robert James was born in Trinidad in 1901 into a family of teachers. There, he became part of a group of writers arguing for home rule for the Britain’s Caribbean island colonies.

In May, 1932, he arrived in Britain, invited by the legendary cricketer Learie Constantine, who was based in the small Lancashire mill town of Nelson, working as a professional player for the cricket club. Cricket here had a huge working class following with crowds of 8-10,000 at a home match. Constantine was extremely popular with the crowds and this opened lots of doors for James who helped him write his autobiography. He was soon talent spotted and employed as a regular cricket correspondent for the Manchester Guardian.

Having already written one novel in Trinidad, James’ purpose in coming to Britain was to become a novelist and playwright. Soon, however, his interest in politics began to dominate over both sport and art. The response of left wing intellectuals to his writing was very positive but it was perhaps fortunate that he first experienced Britain in a northern industrial town rather than in the radical literary salons of the capital.

His earliest work in Britain was The Life of Captain Cipriani: An Account of British Government in the West Indies (1932). Cipriani was a Trinidad and Tobago labour leader and founder of the Trinidad Labour Party. One chapter of the book was also published as a pamphlet, The Case for West Indian Self Government. His biographer, Paul Buhle, calls it “The first important manifesto for national independence in the British West Indies”. At this time, however, James still saw this as primarily a campaign to persuade the British to “grant” this.

However, his years in Britain were to see him change this reformist perspective into a revolutionary one, based on the agency of the exploited and oppressed in their own emancipation, whether they were the workers and farmers in the colonies or industrial workers in the “mother country”. Liberation meant taking power for themselves, not receiving it as a gift from enlightened colonial rulers.

Learning from the working class

In Nelson, he encountered a workers’ movement which combined trade union militancy with a tradition of socialist propaganda going back to the 1880s and ‘90s. Importantly, it had already declared its sympathy for movements for independence in Britain’s colonial empire. Lancashire workers had given a warm welcome to Gandhi when the leader of Indian nationalism visited Britain in 1931.

Soon after James arrived, the Lancashire Weavers’ Association, which had faced a harsh employers’ lockout the previous year, was again forced to engage in a strike against attempts by mill owners to slash wages. Unemployment caused by the Great Depression, though past its highest point, when a quarter of the town’s workers were on the dole, was still 18 per cent.

From 29 August, 16,000 workers in the town’s cotton mills went on strike, bringing the town to a complete halt. There was mass picketing of the mills and battles with the extra mounted police drafted in to protect strikebreakers. The strike lasted for over a month ending, if not in victory, in improved terms.

As CLR later said, the workers of Nelson corrected his hitherto abstract notions of socialism and showed him what the working class could do. In just a few years, the workers of the West Indies were to repeat the lesson. He later remembered that, when he expressed his hopes in 1932 that a Labour Party in power would give the colonies their freedom, some workers replied, “you make a mistake. Ramsay MacDonald, [Arthur] Henderson, Phillip Snowden, [Herbert] Morrison, they never gave us anything and we put them there; why do you think they would give you any?”

Although James joined the Labour Party, activists from the Independent Labour Party, ILP, which had broken from the Labour Party in 1931, also impressed him and he was later to join the ILP. Though he only spent ten months in Nelson these were formative in turning him decisively towards joining the working class movement and Marxism.

Discovering Trotsky and Pan Africanism

It was during his months in “Red Nelson” that a friend, who ran a small printing business, leant him a copy of the recently published first volume of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution. This was his first real introduction to Marxism and formed the basis for his lifelong rejection of Stalinism. The book, he later recalled, “was not only giving details of the revolution itself, but was expounding the Marxist theory of historical materialism”. It was a method he was himself to apply masterfully in The Black Jacobins in only a few years.

In March, 1933, he moved to London where he subsequently met members of the Bloomsbury Group, including Leonard and Virginia Woolf. Here he carried on his research into Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Haitian revolution. As early as 1931, whilst still in Trinidad, he had cited the slave leader to disprove the “scientific racism” of a local academic, who claimed blacks were genetically intellectually inferior to whites.

Friends advanced him the money to visit Paris to research the rich documentation available there, where he was guided by a Haitian military historian. The first product of this was a play about the slave leader, which was eventually performed on 15 and 16 March 1936, in the West End. In the starring role was none other than Paul Robeson, already famous as a singer, actor and civil rights campaigner.

James joined the League of Coloured Peoples, which united African and South Asian activists resident or studying in London at this point, and wrote for their journal The Keys. Here he met other more experienced black anti-colonialists such as George Padmore, of whom he had already heard. When he finally met him, Padmore turned out to be the pen name of a boyhood friend, from Trinidad, Malcolm Nurse.

Padmore had been active in the Communist International’s black and anti-imperialist front organisations but broke from them when, after Hitler came to power, Stalin re-oriented the communist movement towards seeking allies amongst the imperialist democracies, Britain, France and the USA, and abandoned a revolutionary perspective in their colonies. When he founded the International African Service Bureau, IASB, James joined.

By now, James was also working with a small group of Trotskyists in North London who, on Trotsky’s advice, had joined the ILP. James too joined the party and was soon a prominent figure on its left wing. He became the central leader and writer in Fight, the organ of the Marxist Group in the ILP.

He was also to become a noted and admired speaker in the movement of opposition to Fascist Italy’s unprovoked attack on Ethiopia (Abyssinia) in October 1935. Mussolini had the impudence to declare that his invasion and occupation of the last independent state on the African continent, bar tiny Liberia, was “a war of civilisation”, even a war to abolish slavery, which did indeed exist in Haile Selassie’s feudal regime.

James became chair of the International African Friends of Abyssinia, IAFA. He travelled the country giving speeches, rejecting the illusions of some on the left that Britain could or would come to the aid of Ethiopia, or that the League of Nations should do so. In fact, Britain and France were trying to woo Mussolini to prevent him aligning himself with Hitler’s Germany.

On 25 August, 1935, the IAFA held a mass meeting in Trafalgar Square, London, at which James called for the defeat of Italian imperialism and for the workers’ movement and colonial peoples around the world to defend Ethiopia, demanding the lifting of the embargo on selling arms to it.

In October, on the night of the Italian attack, 1,200 people attended an ILP rally in London’s Memorial Hall, Farringdon, to hear James put the case for Ethiopia alongside the Party Chair James Maxton MP and the leader of the party’s left wing, Fenner Brockway. When others called for the League of Nations and “the democracies” to intervene, James urged workers’ sanctions’; international industrial action to stop Mussolini’s war machine.

At roughly the same time, he wrote of the importance of the revolutionary communist movement linking up with the movement for black liberation; “Workers of Britain, peasants and workers of Africa, get closer together for this and for other fights … Now, as always, let us stand for independent organisation and independent action. We have to break our own chains. Who is the fool that expects our gaolers to break them?”

Permanent Revolution

He criticised any reliance on the bourgeois governments of the imperialist powers and referred to Trotsky’s theories of Permanent Revolution and Uneven and Combined Development as showing that the workers and poor farmers of Africa or the West Indies need not wait for the revolution in Europe. Indeed, by their uprisings they could help it develop. His theme was always the independence of the black struggle from all tutelage. He wrote; “we need co-operation, but that co-operation must be with the revolutionary movement in Europe and Asia. There is no other way out. Each movement will neglect the other at its peril”.

Meanwhile, in his role as a leading British Trotskyist, first in the Marxist Group within the ILP and later in an independent organisation, he became convinced that the tiny number of British Trotskyists, already divided, required serious books to win socialist militants to their programme and compete with the Stalinists, who were issuing many books through the medium of Left Book Club. So, in 1937, James wrote a sizeable book, The World Revolution, which chronicled the original promise and then degeneration of the Communist International, mounting a withering critique of Stalin’s policies from the sectarian Third Period to the opportunist Popular Front.

Trotsky himself praised the book whilst making some criticisms of its inadequately dialectical methodology and its assertion that Stalin actually intended to bring about the defeats his policies imposed on communist parties around the world.

Later, in April 1938, the Marxist Group fused with other Trotskyists, including Ted Grant, Denzil Dean Harber and John Archer, to found the Revolutionary Socialist League, which sent delegates to the founding conference of the Fourth International and became its official section.

In America and Mexico

In November, 1938, James left Britain for what turned out to be a 15 year stay in the USA. He had been invited by the American Trotskyist leader James P Cannon to undertake a coast-to coast speaking tour on the political situation in Europe, where a new imperialist war was fast approaching. Cannon also wanted him as a major contributor to the work of the Socialist Workers Party on the black question.

Trotsky had several times warned his American supporters of the dangers of picking up the race prejudice of many white American workers, which had led to actual pogroms in US cities after the First World War. He pulled no punches when, in 1933, he stated; “The American worker is indescribably reactionary…in relation to the Negroes they are hangmen and they are so also towards the Chinese”.

To help the US Trotskyists develop a method for work amongst black workers and the urban and rural poor, James went to meet Trotsky in Mexico in April 1939. In preparation for this, he submitted “Preliminary Notes on the Negro Question”. He suggested in these that the SWP should help in “the organisation of a Negro movement” to fight for civil and political rights and the opening of those trade unions that still discriminated against back workers. Perhaps an equivalent of the IASB he had built with Padmore in Britain.

Trotsky and James conducted a series of minuted conversations which together were to form the basis of the revolutionary Fourth International’s policies on the black question and the forms of organisation it required to be a pioneer of black liberation. Trotsky agreed with James’ suggestion of an independent black organisation in principle, but questioned whether it could be a mass movement in existing conditions. He even suggested that if other parties formed such a movement, Trotskyists might enter it as a faction.  James commented in a letter that Trotsky “is the keenest of the keen on the N[egro] question” and that “He agreed almost entirely with my memo on the Negro question”.


Unfortunately, these positive developments were cut short. The Trotskyist movement was just about to undergo a damaging split over the Russian Question: what was the class character of Stalin’s totalitarian dictatorship in the USSR? Could it still be described as a degenerate workers’ state as Trotsky insisted, that is, a state with post capitalist planned property but a bureaucracy that had politically expropriated the working class?

Major leaders of the SWP, Max Shachtman and James Burnham, developed the view that it was a new form of class society, bureaucratic collectivism. James went with them in the split of 1940 though he was to return to the SWP after the second world war, albeit as a proponent with Raya Dunayevskaya of their own theory of “state capitalism”.

Alongside his Trotskyism, James became a major figure in the embryonic Pan-Africanist movement that was growing up in London. He met and worked with militants who were later to lead their countries to independence such as Eric Williams (Jamaica), Jomo Kenyatta (Kenya) and Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana).

It was in this connection that there was a weakness in the thought of CLR James. Although he understood that the theory of permanent revolution explained how an economically backward country, backward because imperialist exploitation warped its development, could successfully achieve a revolution for national independence, he did not recognise that this was not an end in itself.  There remained the twin questions of socialist measures domestically and the spreading of the revolution internationally. Without both, as Trotsky made clear in his theory of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution, an isolated revolution could not survive by subjective will alone.

So it was that the first generation of pan-Africanist leaders in the independent African and Caribbean states, Nkrumah, Kenyatta, Eric Williams, whom James had helped train, would either be succeeded by more conservative politicians or become corrupted as the Haitian rebels had been.

Nevertheless, the work James did during his period in Britain and in the 1940s in the USA bore fruit in future generations of black militants, who discovered in The Black Jacobins an inspiring call to liberation for the racially oppressed and that in Marx’s words, “ the emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself” and, in those of the Internationale, “no saviours from on high deliver”.


CLR James The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (Penguin paperback) London, 2001

Leon Trotsky, On Black Nationalism and SelfDetermination (New York, 1972)

Sam Bornstein and Al Richardson Against the Stream: History of the Trotskyist Movement in Britain, 1924-38,  London, 1986

Paul Buhle and Lawrence WareC.L.R. James: The Artist As Revolutionary

Christian Høgsbjerg, C.L.R. James in Imperial Britain 2009

Dave Renton CLR James Cricket’s Philosopher King London, 2007 

Priyamvada Gopil Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent London, 2019

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