Black Sansculottes and Ambitious Marionettes: Cedric J. Robinson, C.L.R. James and the Critique of Political Leadership

… the peo­ple were gen­er­al­ly far supe­ri­or to their lead­ers. The more I have dug into this his­to­ry, the more I have found that what real­ly mat­tered was below, in the obscure depths. … The chief actor is the peo­ple. To find them once more, to replace them in their role, I have been com­pelled to reduce to their true pro­por­tions the ambi­tious mar­i­onettes, of whom the peo­ple pulled the strings, and in whom, up to now, we thought we could seek and find the inner move­ment of his­to­ry. The recog­ni­tion of this, I have to con­fess, has struck me with aston­ish­ment. To the degree that I have entered more pro­found­ly into this study, I have found that the par­ty lead­ers, the heroes of con­ven­tion­al his­to­ry, have fore­seen noth­ing, that they did not take the ini­tia­tive in any of the things that real­ly mat­tered, and par­tic­u­lar­ly of those which were the unan­i­mous work of the peo­ple at the begin­ning of the rev­o­lu­tion. Left to them­selves at the­se deci­sive moments, by its pre­tend­ed lead­ers, it worked out what was nec­es­sary to be done and did it. – Jules Michelet1

The seats of pow­er are very warm and very com­fort­able. – C.L.R. James2

When I hear peo­ple argu­ing about Marx­ism ver­sus the nation­al­ist or racial­ist strug­gle, I am very con­fused. In Eng­land I edit­ed the Trot­sky­ist paper and I edit­ed the nation­al­ist, pro-African paper of George Pad­more, and nobody quar­relled. The Trot­sky­ists read and sold the African paper and … there were (African) nation­al­ists who read and sold the Trot­sky­ist paper. I moved among them, we attend­ed each other’s meet­ings and there was no prob­lem because we had the same aim in gen­er­al: free­dom by rev­o­lu­tion.3

Just as Thucy­dides believed that his­tor­i­cal con­scious­ness of a peo­ple in cri­sis pro­vid­ed the pos­si­bil­i­ty of more vir­tu­ous action, more informed and ratio­nal choic­es, so do I. – Cedric J. Robin­son4

If we are to sur­vive, we must take noth­ing which is dead and choose wise­ly among the dying. – Cedric J. Robin­son5

The time has passed for ever when the cause of democ­ra­cy and social­ism was direct­ly tied to Europe. – V.I. Lenin6

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W.E.B. Du Bois, Pro­por­tion of Freemen and Slaves Among Amer­i­can Negroes

At the end of the first chap­ter of The Black Jacobins, “The Prop­er­ty,” James retells a famous and the­o­ret­i­cal­ly charged bio­graph­i­cal vignette about Tou­s­saint L’Ouverture, which seems to inscribe the emer­gence of Black rev­o­lu­tion­ary lead­er­ship at the rad­i­cal mar­gins of the Euro­pean Enlight­en­ment frame. In the Abbé Raynal’s polem­i­cal com­pendi­um, Philo­soph­i­cal and Polit­i­cal His­to­ry of the Estab­lish­ments and Com­merce of the Euro­peans in the Two Indies (1770), Tou­s­saint came across the fol­low­ing lines, which, in James’s retelling, the Haitian rev­o­lu­tion­ary lead­er would repeat to him­self:

Already are there estab­lished two colonies of fugi­tive negroes, whom treaties and pow­er pro­tect from assault. Those light­nings announce the thun­der. A coura­geous chief only is want­ed. Where is he, that great man whom Nature owes to her vexed, oppressed and tor­ment­ed chil­dren? Where is he? He will appear, doubt it not; he will come forth and raise the sacred stan­dard of lib­er­ty. This ven­er­a­ble sig­nal will gath­er around him the com­pan­ions of his mis­for­tune. More impetu­ous than the tor­rents, they will every­where leave the indeli­ble traces of their just resent­ment. Every­where peo­ple will bless the name of the hero who shall have reestab­lished the rights of the human race; every­where will they raise tro­phies in his hon­our.7

And James com­ments: “It is the tragedy of mass move­ments that they need and can only too rarely find ade­quate lead­er­ship.” Tragedy – as David C. Scott and Jere­my Matthew Glick have recent­ly explored8 – is indeed the recur­rent name for the his­tor­i­cal grandeur and dra­mat­ic lim­its that accrue to the rela­tion­ship between polit­i­cal lead­er­ship and mass action in the writ­ing of James, from his par­al­lel recon­struc­tions of the Haitian and Bol­she­vik rev­o­lu­tions to his inter­ven­tions into the debates on decol­o­niza­tion and Black Pow­er in the 1960s and 1970s.

The fate­ful demand and fatal lim­its of lead­er­ship are a func­tion of his­tor­i­cal tran­si­tions or crises in which mass action is not syn­chro­nized, so to speak, with its mate­ri­al and ide­o­log­i­cal deter­mi­nants, and in which lead­er­ship – though repu­di­at­ed by James for “advanced” tem­po­ral­i­ties and geo­gra­phies of class strug­gle – seems an inevitable syn­the­siz­ing and empow­er­ing instru­ment. Whether in The Black Jacobins or four decades lat­er in Nkrumah and the Ghana Rev­o­lu­tion, the his­tor­i­cal, strate­gic and dra­mat­ic ques­tion of polit­i­cal lead­er­ship is also at the nexus of Marx­ist pro­le­tar­i­an pol­i­tics and Black lib­er­a­tion strug­gles, in ways which I hope to sketch here. It is for that rea­son that I think lead­er­ship can serve as  a priv­i­leged prism to revis­it, in this the­o­ret­i­cal homage to the work of Cedric J. Robin­son, his own encoun­ter with James’s work, both in Black Marx­ism and in the 1992 essay “C.L.R. James and the World-Sys­tem.” Of the fig­ures treat­ed by Robin­son, in Black Marx­ism and beyond, James – whom he appo­site­ly hails as a “too rare exam­ple of a liv­ing, active, grap­pling Marx­ism” – is arguably the one for whom reflec­tion on the the­o­ry and prac­tice of black strug­gles, whether in the West Indies, the US Black Belt or across the Pan-African­ist move­ment, was insep­a­ra­ble if not indis­tin­guish­able from a pro­found revi­sion of and fideli­ty to a Marx­ist and Lenin­ist tra­di­tion.9 If, from a cer­tain angle, the mak­ing of the Black Rad­i­cal Tra­di­tion is also the unmak­ing of a pre­car­i­ous ide­o­log­i­cal amal­gam called “Black Marx­ism,” then James’s tra­jec­to­ry pos­es per­haps the most gen­er­a­tive chal­lenge to Robinson’s propo­si­tion that the Tra­di­tion is a cre­ative nega­tion of a West­ern par­a­digm of polit­i­cal thought that includes Marx­ism, includ­ing James’s own.

In what fol­lows, I want to begin by briefly gaug­ing the force of Robinson’s demo­li­tion of the myth and social epis­te­mol­o­gy of polit­i­cal lead­er­ship in his first book, The Terms of Order: Polit­i­cal Sci­ence and the Myth of Lead­er­ship (1980), which, albeit in a more “archae­o­log­i­cal” and qua­si-tran­scen­den­tal vein than Black Marx­ism, sets many of the guide­li­nes for his lat­er work.10 In Terms, Robin­son already chal­lenges the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a suc­cess­ful imma­nent over­com­ing of the lim­its of West­ern polit­i­cal thought as an ide­ol­o­gy of dom­i­na­tion embed­ded in the com­plex lega­cies of racial cap­i­tal­ism – cast­ing doubts on anar­chism’s capac­i­ty to chal­lenge the nexus of author­i­ty, order and lead­er­ship while broach­ing, through a study of the Ton­ga peo­ple, the pos­si­bil­i­ty of an antipo­lit­i­cal utopia emerg­ing out of African tra­di­tions of col­lec­tive life.

In a cap­ti­vat­ing rein­ter­pre­ta­tion of Weber’s notion of charis­ma, Terms also dis­plays Robinson’s insis­tence on the cre­ative pow­er of mass resis­tance and the deriv­a­tive nature of lead­er­ship. In Black Marx­ism, Black Move­ments in Amer­i­ca and potent essays on Fanon, Du Bois and espe­cial­ly Amil­car Cabral11 (the one 20th cen­tu­ry polit­i­cal thinker who stands as a kind of rev­o­lu­tion­ary mod­el in Robin­son in the ear­ly 1980s) this cri­tique of polit­i­cal lead­er­ship is enhanced by a pow­er­ful class cri­tique, which con­nects the prob­lem of polit­i­cal lead­er­ship to that of the con­tra­dic­tions beset­ting the pet­ty bour­geoisie and the for­ma­tion of that black intel­li­gentsia to which James him­self belonged. From this van­tage point, James’s trag­ic por­trait of Tou­s­saint is a self-por­trait in dis­guise. Instead of eval­u­at­ing Robinson’s the­o­ret­i­cal and bio­graph­i­cal diag­no­sis of the ten­sions tra­vers­ing C.L.R. James’s encoun­ters with the Black Rad­i­cal Tra­di­tion, I want to touch on the strik­ing con­ver­gence between many of the themes of Robinson’s work and James’s own attempts at self-crit­i­cism or self-revi­sion in his lessons on the Black Jacobins from 1971, as well as their res­o­nance with James’s revis­it­ing of the lead­er-mass­es prob­lem­at­ic in his crit­i­cal his­to­ry of the Ghana rev­o­lu­tion. It is at this point of clos­est affin­i­ty that we can also see where Robinson’s under­stand­ing of the Black Rad­i­cal Tra­di­tion and James’s “Black Marx­ism” main­tain their polit­i­cal and the­o­ret­i­cal dis­tinc­tions, which we could sum­ma­rize as a dif­fer­ence between the polit­i­cal auton­o­my of rev­o­lu­tion­ary black strug­gles and the meta­phys­i­cal auton­o­my of an antipo­lit­i­cal tra­di­tion of resis­tance.

Pre­saged by a 1971 arti­cle on the place of charis­ma in the polit­i­cal thought of Mal­colm X12, Cedric Robinson’s first book is a dense, intri­cate and intran­si­gent destruc­tion of what the sub­ti­tle of the book (a revised ver­sion of his doc­tor­al dis­ser­ta­tion)13 cap­tures as the polit­i­cal myth that struc­tures West­ern polit­i­cal sci­ence. Though Robin­son musters an impres­sive arse­nal to, in his words, “abuse the polit­i­cal con­scious­ness” of the West (in ways, inci­den­tal­ly, not reducible to the wel­ter of con­tem­po­rary decolo­nial and post­colo­nial per­spec­tives, and even less to spec­u­la­tive “Afro-pes­simist” invo­ca­tions of black­ness), the under­ly­ing claim is stark: West­ern polit­i­cal thought and polit­i­cal sci­ence is based on two fal­lac­i­es: that lead­er­ship is nec­es­sary for order and that hier­ar­chy can be ratio­nal­ly legit­i­mat­ed.14 As he observes: “The pre­sump­tion that polit­i­cal lead­er­ship is a con­cept through which the event of social orga­ni­za­tion can be made rec­og­niz­able is a spe­cious one. Yet it is this same pre­sump­tion which under­lies both lib­er­al and rad­i­cal attempts at social reor­ga­ni­za­tion and ‘per­fec­tion.’”15 But the illu­sion of the polit­i­cal remains baf­fling­ly unshak­en by a his­tor­i­cal record which amply proves that polit­i­cal­ly con­sol­i­dat­ed and enforced author­i­ty is not a source of social sta­bil­i­ty and order, punc­tur­ing the illu­sion of lead­er­ship as the “sol­vent-object” of that “prob­lem-object” that is the peri­od­ic cri­sis of sta­bil­i­ty (sure­ly a state­ment that needs lit­tle proof in ear­ly 2017).

“The lit­er­a­tures of soci­ol­o­gy, polit­i­cal sci­ence, his­to­ry and social psy­chol­o­gy stri­dent­ly sub­stan­ti­ate through the pletho­ra of ana­lyt­i­cal instru­ments, the meta­physics of lead­er­ship.” In Robinson’s bit­ing­ly florid turn of phrase: “It is, indeed, dif­fi­cult to escape the mis­chie­vous tyran­ny of a mind which can­not only declare but also sculp­ture the physique of its error into real­i­ty.”16 In the West­ern polit­i­cal par­a­digm this error-become-real­i­ty impos­es lead­er­ship as the instru­ment to rep­re­sent and relate the objec­tive real­i­ty of order and author­i­ty, over­cod­ing them with a polit­i­cal meta­physic spawned by a mixed par­a­digm that com­bi­nes the para­me­ters of geo­met­ric order with the urgen­cy of sal­va­tion­al nar­ra­tives, and which presents the lead­er as “an instru­ment of ratio­nal action where ratio­nal action is under­stood as col­lec­tive action which extends the sur­vival of a com­mu­ni­ty,“17 and where the “illu­sion of pure deci­sion [sub­si­dizes] the belief in the select nature of the deci­sion-mak­er.”18

The polit­i­cal heart of The Terms of Order is to be found in the nuanced jux­ta­po­si­tion of the imma­nent cri­tique of this polit­i­cal par­a­digm with­in the Euro­pean anar­chist tra­di­tion and the alter­na­tive to lead­er­ship deposit­ed in the ethnog­ra­phy of antipo­lit­i­cal soci­eties. This cri­tique of anar­chism is a tem­plate of sorts for Robinson’s demar­ca­tion of Marxism’s lim­its, and deserv­ing of greater inter­ro­ga­tion, but for the pur­pos­es of this essay I want to home in on his recast­ing of the Webe­ri­an con­cept of charis­ma. The lat­ter serves as a kind of hinge in Terms: it is the blindspot of a polit­i­cal sci­ence oblig­ed to make recourse to irra­tional deriva­tions of instru­men­tal polit­i­cal author­i­ty which it con­sti­tu­tive­ly dis­avows and it rep­re­sents an open­ing for rethink­ing lead­er­ship not as that which author­i­ta­tive­ly orders a mass into social­ly sta­ble and obe­di­ent peo­ple, but spring­ing forth from mass move­ments in a man­ner that can­not be con­tained by order or author­i­ty. Lead­er­ship derives from move­ment, not vice ver­sa. Pulling at the con­tra­dic­tions inher­ent in Weber’s view of charis­ma as the “specif­i­cal­ly cre­ative rev­o­lu­tion­ary force of his­to­ry,“19 Robin­son instructs us that: “It is, in truth, the charis­mat­ic fig­ure who has been select­ed by social cir­cum­stances, psy­cho­dy­nam­ic pecu­liar­i­ties, and tra­di­tion, and not his fol­low­ers by him.”20 The phe­nom­e­non of charis­ma is a kind of residue or indi­vis­i­ble remain­der which a ratio­nal­ist polit­i­cal sci­ence can­not metab­o­lize, and must both pre­sup­pose and treat as patho­log­i­cal. Out­side of the mixed par­a­digm of West­ern polit­i­cal sci­ence, charis­ma draws its author­i­ty from beyond the lead­er, and the charis­mat­ic lead­er is him­self a “charis­mati­cized fol­low­er” of his fol­low­ers. Thus, the his­tor­i­cal­ly dom­i­nant image of polit­i­cal author­i­ty is “the per­ver­sion of charis­ma” and “the alien­ation of the mass author­i­ty of charis­ma,” with the lat­ter under­stood as “a psy­choso­cial force con­struct­ed by a peo­ple who have under­gone an extend­ed peri­od of trau­ma­tiz­ing stress.”21

Almost two decades after Terms, Robin­son would reit­er­ate this fig­u­ra­tion of charis­ma to sit­u­ate Mar­t­in Luther King (and Mal­colm X) in the Black lib­er­a­tionist pol­i­tics that found their tap­root not in the expe­ri­ence of free Blacks in the North, as was the case for an accom­mo­da­tion­ist elite racial pol­i­tics, but in slave resis­tance: “King’s charis­mat­ic author­i­ty was trib­u­tary of the Afro-Chris­tian tra­di­tion embed­ded in the con­scious­ness of the now most­ly urban Blacks in the South and else­where. … In this per­for­mance, he was less a per­son than a social and his­tor­i­cal iden­ti­ty.”22 This is in con­trast with those “rep­re­sen­ta­tive col­ored men” who Robin­son con­sid­ers large­ly irrel­e­vant to black mass­es con­struct­ing their alter­na­tive forms of com­mu­nal life. The “charis­mat­ic phe­nom­e­non,” instead, remains in Robinson’s esti­ma­tion “the only instru­ment of sur­vival and lib­er­a­tion organ­ic, that is, authen­tic, to the cir­cum­stance, tra­di­tion, and psy­chic nature of the bulk of human beings liv­ing in oppres­sion,” with the lead­er a “fine­ly tuned” instru­ment, sen­si­tive to the suf­fer­ing and aspi­ra­tions of the mass­es who have charis­mati­cized him in a con­junc­ture of cri­sis.23 As Eri­ca R. Edwards (who also penned the intro­duc­tion to The Terms of Order) notes in her Charis­ma and the Fic­tion of Black Lead­er­ship, an inci­sive cul­tur­al cri­tique of the gen­dered log­ic of black lead­er­ship as both real­i­ty and myth: “One of the found­ing prob­lem­at­ics of black polit­i­cal moder­ni­ty is [the] dou­ble poten­tial of the charis­mat­ic lead­er­ship role: to dis­ci­pline, on the one hand, and to dis­rupt, pre­cise­ly by way of charis­mat­ic per­for­mance, the dis­ci­pli­nary machi­na­tions of the cap­i­tal­ist order on the oth­er.”24

Now, though James was him­self wary of the notion of charis­ma, or indeed the lan­guage of psy­chol­o­gy (though he also cor­rect­ed him­self on this in the 1971 lec­tures on the Black Jacobins), the recog­ni­tion that lead­er­ship draws its dynamism (and lim­its) from mass move­ments, not vice ver­sa, and that it is a func­tion of cri­sis (and more, par­tic­u­lar­ly, of rev­o­lu­tion­ary tran­si­tion), is deeply Jame­sian. It is strik­ing in this respect that Robin­son choos­es to present James’s analy­sis of Toussaint’s hamar­tia or trag­ic flaw, as the implic­it recog­ni­tion of the lim­its of the very class per­spec­tive, that of a dias­poric black intel­li­gentsia, which had also allowed James, along with Du Bois and Pad­more, but also Cabral and Fanon, to make the the­o­ret­i­cal leap from the West­ern polit­i­cal par­a­digm to the Black Rad­i­cal Tra­di­tion. Com­ment­ing on what James sug­ges­tive­ly referred to as Toussaint’s “fail­ure of enlight­en­ment,” the com­bi­na­tion of an author­i­tar­i­an project of state mod­ern­iza­tion with deaf­ness to the demands of the very black labor­ers that had made him lead­er – “to bewil­der the mass­es is to strike the dead­liest of all blows at the rev­o­lu­tion,” James declared – Robin­son dis­plays his clin­i­cal insight:

We, of course, rec­og­nize James (and per­haps even his impres­sions of Pad­more) in the­se asser­tions. We can see the declared iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of a Black rev­o­lu­tion­ary intel­li­gentsia with the mass­es; the will­ing­ness to con­tin­ue the sub­mis­sion to “sci­en­tific social­ism” by deny­ing the mate­ri­al force of ide­ol­o­gy while indi­cat­ing a bit­ter dis­ap­point­ment with the Com­mu­nist move­ment; the patron­iz­ing atti­tude toward the organ­ic lead­ers of the mass­es; and the ambiva­lent pride of place pre­sumed for the West­ern­ized ide­o­logue. More­over, it is clear that James was look­ing crit­i­cal­ly at his own class. Unlike his con­fed­er­ates, he was com­pelled to face up to the bound­aries beyond which the rev­o­lu­tion­ary petit bour­geoisie could not be trust­ed. For that rea­son he was to insist often that the rev­o­lu­tion­ary mass­es must pre­serve to them­selves the direc­tion of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ment, nev­er defer­ring to pro­fes­sion­al rev­o­lu­tion­ists, par­ties, or the intel­li­gentsia.25

Robin­son fur­ther exca­vates how in Notes on Dialec­tics and asso­ci­at­ed writ­ings from the John­son-For­rest Ten­den­cy and its suc­ces­sors, James had sup­ple­ment­ed his trac­ing of the his­tor­i­cal log­ic of the class strug­gle between pro­le­tari­at and bour­geoisie with an atten­tion to the trans­for­ma­tion of the petit bour­geoisie. Rec­og­niz­ing this trans­for­ma­tion was nec­es­sary “because this strata had pre­sumed the lead­er­ship of the pro­le­tar­i­an move­ment and then betrayed it.”26 James’s anti-van­guardist axiom – “There is noth­ing more to orga­nize” – was also to be read as the pro­duct of this vital self-crit­i­cism of the petit bour­geoisie, in oth­er words as a class analy­sis of the com­po­si­tion and ori­en­ta­tion of rev­o­lu­tion­ary lead­er­ship. That this was an abid­ing con­cern of James, espe­cial­ly as con­cerned the ques­tion of Black and Pan-African lead­er­ship, is elo­quent­ly tes­ti­fied by his reflec­tions on the need to trust in the mass­es again­st the col­lu­sions and pre­var­i­ca­tions of petit-bour­geois lead­ers. Draw­ing on George Lamming’s Sea­son of Adven­ture, James mus­es:

I don’t know any­where, where any intel­lec­tu­al, any mem­ber of the intel­lec­tu­al élite, has tak­en upon him­self com­plete respon­si­bil­i­ty for what has hap­pened to the peo­ple he has left behind him. The peo­ple will make their way. We who have had the advan­tages must recog­nise our respon­si­bil­i­ty … there are not many intel­lec­tu­als who realise what they are doing and the social crimes they com­mit, who say: “I won a schol­ar­ship, I joined the élite and left my peo­ple behind, and I feel that that action on my part is respon­si­ble for what is hap­pen­ing to them.”27

In Robinson’s own work, the sharpest polit­i­cal lessons to be drawn about the ambigu­ous but crit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion of the black petit-bour­geois intel­li­gentsia – “medi­a­tors between Black work­ers and the social tapes­try woven by cap­i­tal­ist-deter­mined forms of pro­duc­tion”28 as he writes in Black Marx­ism – is to be found in his arti­cle “Amil­car Cabral and the Dialec­tic of Por­tugue­se Colo­nial­ism,” pub­lished in the jour­nal Rad­i­cal Amer­i­ca in 1981. There, Robin­son iden­ti­fies the bril­liance of Cabral’s anti­colo­nial lead­er­ship in his capac­i­ty deft­ly to anat­o­mize the con­tra­dic­tions of col­o­nized soci­ety, and name­ly the prob­lem of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary petit bour­geoisie. Cabral’s the­o­ry and prac­tice is ground­ed in the recog­ni­tion of a rev­o­lu­tion­ary sit­u­a­tion in which all the tra­di­tion­al class actors in the of Euro­pean rev­o­lu­tions were stunt­ed or absent: no indus­tri­al pro­le­tari­at, no devel­oped bour­geoisie, not even a mass peas­antry. Rather, it was the trans­fig­u­ra­tion of the petit bour­geoisie on which the rev­o­lu­tion­ary impe­tus depend­ed. As Cabral declared in La Havana in 1966: “The rev­o­lu­tion­ary pet­ty bour­geoisie must be capa­ble of com­mit­ting sui­cide as a class in order to be reborn as rev­o­lu­tion­ary work­ers, com­plete­ly iden­ti­fied with the deep­est aspi­ra­tions of the peo­ple to which they belong.”29 A cre­ative adap­ta­tion of the received class schema of rev­o­lu­tion­ary pol­i­tics (a “stretch­ing” we could say, para­phras­ing Fanon) was demand­ed by the con­di­tions of Guinea and Cabo Verde, a trans­for­ma­tive nexus between pet­ty-bour­geoisie and the peo­ple.

In Nkrumah and the Ghana Rev­o­lu­tion, C.L.R. James would fore­ground this very prob­lem, both ful­ly rec­og­niz­ing the con­tri­bu­tion of ordi­nary Africans to the emer­gence of anti­colo­nial eman­ci­pa­tion (most promi­nent­ly Ghana­ian “mar­ket-wom­en”), and por­tray­ing per­son­al polit­i­cal lead­er­ship, much as he had done in The Black Jacobins, as a neces­si­ty in the con­text of a “back­ward” soci­ety. Con­trary to Robin­son, and even to the latter’s inter­pre­ta­tion of James’s affin­i­ty with Oliv­er C. Cox and the latter’s break with the lin­ear his­tor­i­cal log­ic of Marx­ist class strug­gle, and notwith­stand­ing his own recog­ni­tion of the crit­i­cal con­tri­bu­tion of ordi­nary Africans and their tra­di­tion­al polit­i­cal insti­tu­tions to the lib­er­a­tion strug­gle, James does appear to present the advanced/backward dis­tinc­tion as cru­cial to the cen­tral­i­ty of lead­er­ship to anti­colo­nial pol­i­tics, by con­trast with class pol­i­tics in advanced cap­i­tal­ist coun­tries. This dis­tinc­tion is also essen­tial to the “tragedy” of lead­er­ship, with Nkrumah seem­ing to repeat, in a dif­fer­ent guise, the mis­takes of Tou­s­saint, los­ing his sense for the mass­es whilst entan­gled in the appar­ent neces­si­ties of mod­ern­iza­tion.

It is par­tic­u­lar­ly strik­ing that here, as in his key texts on the auton­o­my of Black strug­gles in the Unit­ed States, James turns, in a kind of het­ero­dox dog­ma­tism, to the author­i­ty of Lenin, return­ing to the very pas­sages on the vital­i­ty and rel­a­tive inde­pen­dence of non-pro­le­tar­i­an strug­gles, includ­ing petit-bour­geois and peas­ant strug­gles (espe­cial­ly Lenin’s writ­ing on Ire­land), to ground the Marx­ist cre­den­tials of a rev­o­lu­tion­ary pol­i­tics that does not have the pro­le­tari­at as its exclu­sive (or in the case of Pan-African strug­gles, even its strate­gi­cal­ly key) sub­ject. Thus, just as in the 1940s James would under­score Lenin’s obser­va­tions in the Sec­ond Con­gress of the Com­mu­nist Inter­na­tion­al on the “mot­ley” char­ac­ter of strug­gles in which dif­fer­ent non-pro­le­tar­i­an groups and class­es play an indis­pens­able role30 to shore up his argu­ments for the auton­o­my of Black strug­gles, so in reflect­ing on the impass­es of Nkrumah’s Ghana in the six­ties, he would inter­pret Lenin’s late writ­ings on the admin­is­tra­tion of the state as a rad­i­cal recog­ni­tion of the mar­gin­al­i­ty of the clas­si­cal­ly-con­ceived pro­le­tari­at to the pol­i­tics of “back­ward” coun­tries, whether in the USSR or Ghana.31 (It is wor­thy of note, in terms of Robinson’s empha­sis on C.L.R. James’s auto-cri­tique of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary pet­ty-bour­geois intel­li­gentsia, that James pro­pos­es that one can mod­el the inde­pen­dence of “racial” and nation­al-minor­i­ty strug­gles on that of non-rev­o­lu­tion­ary class­es.)

Par­en­thet­i­cal­ly, we can note that while per­son­al lead­er­ship is side-lined in James’s writ­ings on Marx­ist orga­niz­ing and the “Negro Ques­tion” of the 1940s, the ques­tion of lead­er­ship is shift­ed to the com­plex ques­tion of the lead­er­ship of the pro­le­tari­at as a class – a class about which we can say that the more it leads the less it requires either lead­ers or a van­guard detach­ment. In James’s esti­ma­tion, as stat­ed with polem­i­cal lucid­i­ty in “Key Prob­lems in the Study of Negro His­to­ry” (1950), among the ide­o­log­i­cal crimes of Stal­in­ism was the lip ser­vice played to mass action, sug­ar-coat­ing an author­i­tar­i­an con­cep­tion of lead­er­ship and tra­duc­ing the real­i­ty that true lead­ers were “men whose every step is con­di­tioned by the recog­ni­tion that they rep­re­sent the deep­est instincts and desires of the mass.”32

From Black Jacobins to Nkrumah and the writ­ings on Black Pow­er, C.L.R. James would con­tin­ue to main­tain a shift­ing bal­ance between spon­ta­neous mass strug­gles for self-eman­ci­pa­tion and the (per­haps trag­ic) role of per­son­al lead­er­ship. Pro­long­ing the method of dialec­tic biog­ra­phy first broached in his study of the West Indi­an labor lead­er Cap­tain Cipri­ani and mas­ter­ful­ly devel­oped in his study of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary sequence in Saint Domingue/Haiti, C.L.R. James would orbit around the ques­tion of black lead­er­ship, not just in African or West-Indi­an con­text (where the diverse fig­ures of Mar­cus Gar­vey, Pad­more, Fanon, Nyer­ere and oth­ers recur) but in the US too, as his extreme­ly pos­i­tive por­traits of Stoke­ly Carmichael and George Jack­son33 tes­ti­fy (though it is inter­est­ing to note the provo­ca­tion, so anti­thet­i­cal to Robinson’s take on black move­ments, to fore­ground the fig­ure of Lin­coln34). But in the 1960s and 1970s, his abid­ing con­cern with the auton­o­my of mass pop­u­lar strug­gles, and the dis­tinc­tion between class lead­er­ship and per­son­al author­i­ty, would issue in treat­ments of black strug­gles that not only move closer to Robinson’s abid­ing empha­sis on the “capac­i­ties for resis­tance of ordi­nary black peo­ple,”35 as embed­ded in autonomous tra­di­tions of resis­tance, but large­ly under­mine the very recourse to the phe­nom­e­non of charis­ma.

In “Black San­scu­lottes,” a short piece writ­ten in 1964 for the Newslet­ter of the Insti­tute of Race Rela­tions, a year after the sec­ond edi­tion of Black Jacobins, James homes in on Toussaint’s trag­ic error, where­by recourse to French cul­ture and cap­i­tal meant sap­ping “the new­ly-cre­at­ed energies of his own fol­low­ers.”36 Dis­play­ing that deep instinct for his­tor­i­cal anal­o­gy which he shares with Trot­sky, and which allowed him to present a his­to­ry of the Haitian rev­o­lu­tion both mod­elled on and fore­shad­ow­ing the Bol­she­vik one as a cru­cial object lesson for the Pan-African move­ment – all in turn read through the prism of the rad­i­cal his­to­ri­og­ra­phy of the French rev­o­lu­tion – James declar­es: “the dilem­ma of Tou­s­saint was an ele­men­tal and prim­i­tive form of the dilem­ma which faces all new­ly-inde­pen­dent back­ward ter­ri­to­ries today.” In par­tic­u­lar, it is from the pref­ace of Jules Michelet’s mul­ti-vol­ume his­to­ry of the French rev­o­lu­tion, and in its fur­ther artic­u­la­tion by Georges Lefeb­vre, that James would draw a key lesson for the cri­tique of rev­o­lu­tion­ary lead­er­ship, name­ly that atten­tion should be dis­lo­cat­ed from the spec­tac­u­lar feats of the man­i­fest lead­ers, Michelet’s “ambi­tious mar­i­onettes,” and redi­rect­ed to the agen­cy of the pop­u­lar mass­es and to what Lefeb­vre called their “obscure lead­ers.”

While James did not relent on the notion that great men do make his­to­ry (though not under con­di­tions of their own choos­ing and on the suf­fer­ance of mass move­ment and feel­ing), the “entry of the cho­rus” is cru­cial to his self-crit­i­cal reflec­tions on Black Jacobins, as sig­naled by the rep­e­ti­tion of Michelet-Lefebvre’s admo­ni­tion to attend to obscure lead­ers, enhanced here by a recog­ni­tion of the rel­a­tive supe­ri­or­i­ty of Du Bois’s Black Recon­struc­tion over the Black Jacobins in attend­ing to the role of Black cul­ture and reli­gious con­scious­ness in the polit­i­cal psy­chol­o­gy of resis­tance, as well as in the treat­ment of the “lead­er­less” phe­nom­e­non of the gen­er­al strike again­st the plan­toc­ra­cy. What’s more, rec­og­niz­ing the crit­i­cal role that African polit­i­cal cul­ture and mar­ronage had in the for­ma­tion of slave resis­tance, James empha­sizes how, in rewrit­ing The Black Jacobins, he would have recon­struct­ed the voic­es of the slaves in revolt, not just the record of their actions as sed­i­ment­ed in met­ro­pol­i­tan archives: “I don’t want today to be writ­ing and say that’s what they said about how we were being treat­ed. Not any longer, no. I would want to say what we had to say about how we were treat­ed, and I know that that infor­ma­tion exists in all the mate­ri­al. … We have had enough of what they have said about us even when sym­pa­thet­ic” (we may note that Car­olyn Fick’s superb The Mak­ing of Haiti, which makes con­sid­er­able the­mat­ic use of the notion of the “obscure lead­er” comes very close indeed to James’s imag­ined rewrite).37

The sig­nif­i­cance of Michelet’s praise of the obscure lead­ers and the peo­ple to James’s shift­ing thought on the com­plex prob­lem of rev­o­lu­tion­ary lead­er­ship is evi­dent in its crit­i­cal role in the piv­otal chap­ter of Nkrumah and the Ghana Rev­o­lu­tion on “The Peo­ple and the Lead­er,” where James also takes the oppor­tu­ni­ty to chide Trot­sky for mis­un­der­stand­ing and over-empha­siz­ing the “very dif­fi­cult ques­tion, the rela­tion­ship of the lead­er to the mass move­ment in a rev­o­lu­tion” in his His­to­ry of the Rus­sian Rev­o­lu­tion, one of the key tem­plates for The Black Jacobins.38 Though it may be argued that James remains too cap­ti­vat­ed by the vicis­si­tudes of the great male lead­er, his decol­o­niz­ing cri­tique of the petit-bour­geois intel­li­gentsia and atten­tion to the obscure lead­er­ship and self-activ­i­ty of the mass­es is a rich avenue beyond the rep­e­ti­tions, be they trag­ic or far­ci­cal, of the mass-lead­er dialec­tic. And while nev­er crys­tal­liz­ing into the idea of a dis­tinct Black Rad­i­cal Tra­di­tion that would con­sti­tute a dis­tinct and “total” the­o­ry of lib­er­a­tion, found­ed on a “sin­gle his­tor­i­cal iden­ti­ty,” nor mak­ing the clean break with the Marx­i­an dialec­tic that Robin­son glimpses in Mariners,39 with its patho­log­i­cal fig­ures of total­i­tar­i­an lead­er­ship (Ahab) and petit-bour­geois intel­lec­tu­al com­plic­i­ty (Ish­mael), James’s writ­ing on Black rev­o­lu­tion­ary mass pol­i­tics res­onates in illu­mi­nat­ing ways with Robinson’s abid­ing and mul­ti-faceted atten­tion to the “capac­i­ties for resis­tance of ordi­nary black peo­ple” and his vig­i­lance again­st the trap of lead­er­ship as nexus of socio-polit­i­cal author­i­ty and meta­phys­i­cal fetish of order. But it does so while bypass­ing the phe­nom­e­non of charis­ma, one that for James is not, or no longer, indis­pens­able for chan­nel­ing the energies of pop­u­lar strug­gles.40 If there is noth­ing more to orga­nize, per­haps there is also no one to fol­low.

A ver­sion of this paper was orig­i­nal­ly deliv­ered at the 2016 His­tor­i­cal Mate­ri­al­ism con­fer­ence in Lon­don, as part of a dou­ble ses­sion on “The Black Rad­i­cal Tra­di­tion: The Lega­cy of Cedric Robin­son.”


  1. Jules Michelet, Pref­ace to His­toire de la rev­o­lu­tion française, cited in C.L.R. James, Nkrumah and the Ghana Rev­o­lu­tion (Lon­don: Allison & Bus­by, 1977),  106. 

  2. C.L.R. James, “Lec­tures on the Black Jacobins (1971),” Small Axe 4, no. 2 (Sep­tem­ber 2000): 65-112. 

  3. C.L.R. James, “Towards the Sev­en­th: The Pan-African Con­gress,” in At the Ren­dezvous of Vic­to­ry: Select­ed Writ­ings of C.L.R. James (Lon­don: Allison & Bus­by, 1984), 236-50. 

  4. Cedric J. Robin­son, “Cap­i­tal­ism, Marx­ism, and the Black Rad­i­cal Tra­di­tion: An Inter­view with Cedric Robin­son,” Per­spec­tives on Anar­chist The­o­ry, 3, no. 1 (Spring 1999): 1, 6-8. 

  5. Cedric J. Robin­son, Black Marx­ism: The Mak­ing of the Black Rad­i­cal Tra­di­tion (Chapel Hill: Uni­ver­si­ty of North Car­oli­na Press, 2000 [1983]), 316. 

  6. V.I. Lenin, “On the Slo­gan for a Unit­ed States of Europe,” Col­lect­ed Works, Vol­ume 21: August 1914-Decem­ber 1915 (Moscow: Pro­gress Pub­lish­ers, 1964), 342. 

  7. Cit­ed in C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins: Tou­s­saint L’Ouverture and the San Domin­go Rev­o­lu­tion, 2nd rev ed. (New York: Vin­tage Books, 1989 [1963]), 25. 

  8. David Scott, Con­scripts of Moder­ni­ty: The Tragedy of Colo­nial Enlight­en­ment (Durham, N.C.: Duke Uni­ver­si­ty Press,  2004); Omens of Adver­si­ty: Tragedy, Time, Mem­o­ry, Jus­tice (Durham, N.C.: Duke Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2014); Jere­my Matthew Glick, The Black Rad­i­cal Trag­ic: Per­for­mance, Aes­thet­ics, and the Unfin­ished Haitian Rev­o­lu­tion (New York: NYU Press, 2016). For some crit­i­cal reflec­tions on Scott’s the­sis, see my “Pol­i­tics in a Trag­ic Key,” Rad­i­cal Phi­los­o­phy 180 (July/August 2013). 

  9. Robin­son, Black Marx­ism, 285. 

  10. Cedric J. Robin­son, The Terms of Order: Polit­i­cal Sci­ence and the Myth of Lead­er­ship (Chapel Hill: Uni­ver­si­ty of North Car­oli­na Press, 2016 [1980]). 

  11. See Cedric J. Robin­son, “The Appro­pri­a­tion of Frantz Fanon”, Race & Class, 35, no. 1 (1993): 79-91; “Du Bois and Black Sov­er­eign­ty: The Case of Liberia”, Race & Class, 32, no. 2 (1990): 39-50; Amil­car Cabral and the Dialec­tic of Por­tugue­se Colo­nial­ism, Rad­i­cal Amer­i­ca, 15, no.3 (May-June 1981): 39-58. 

  12. Cedric J. Robin­son, “Mal­colm Lit­tle as a Charis­mat­ic Lead­er,” Afro-Amer­i­can Stud­ies 3 (1972): 81-96 

  13. On the high­ly symp­to­matic sto­ry of Robinson’s dis­ser­ta­tion and its delayed award, see Robin D.G. Kelley’s obit­u­ary, “Cedric J. Robin­son: the Mak­ing of a Black Rad­i­cal Intel­lec­tu­al,” Coun­ter­punch, June 17, 2016. 

  14. Ibid., 6. 

  15. Ibid., 4-5. 

  16. Ibid., 36. 

  17. Ibid., 39. 

  18. Ibid., 65. 

  19. Ibid., 83. 

  20. Ibid., 151. 

  21. Ibid., 156. 

  22. Cedric J. Robin­son, Black Move­ments in Amer­i­ca (Lon­don, Rout­ledge, 1997), 144. 

  23. Robin­son, The Terms of Order, 151-152. 

  24. Eri­ca R. Edwards, Charis­ma and the Fic­tion of Black Lead­er­ship (Min­neapolis: Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press, 2012), 5. 

  25. Robin­son, Black Marx­ism, 278. 

  26. Ibid., 284. 

  27. James, “Towards the Sev­en­th: The Pan-African Con­gress,” 249. 

  28. Robin­son, Black Marx­ism, 257. 

  29. Amil­car Cabral, “The Weapon of The­o­ry” (1966), cit­ed in Robin­son, “Amil­car Cabral and the Dialec­tic of Por­tugue­se Colo­nial­ism,” 52. 

  30. see J.R. John­son [C.L.R. James], “The His­tor­i­cal Devel­op­ment of the Negroes in Amer­i­can Soci­ety” (1943), in C.L.R. James on the “Negro Ques­tion”, ed. Scott McLemee (Jack­son, MS: Uni­ver­si­ty Press of Mis­sis­sip­pi, 1996), pp. 72-3 

  31. see C.L.R. James, “Lenin and the Prob­lem” (1964), appen­dix to Nkrumah and the Ghana Rev­o­lu­tion, 189-213. This text also appeared in Rad­i­cal Amer­i­ca 4, no. 4 (May 1970): 97-110. 

  32. J.R. John­son [C.L.R. James], “Key Prob­lems in the Study of Negro His­to­ry,” in C.L.R. James on the “Negro Ques­tion”, 128. 

  33. C.L.R. James, “Black Pow­er” (1967), in Spheres of Exis­tence (West­port, CT: Lawrence Hill & Co., 1980); “George Jack­son”, Rad­i­cal Amer­i­ca 5, no. 6 (Novem­ber-Decem­ber 1971): 51-56. Jackson’s let­ters, James writes, “are in my opin­ion the most remark­able polit­i­cal doc­u­ments that have appeared inside or out­side the Unit­ed States since the death of Lenin” (54). 

  34. See “Black Stud­ies and the Con­tem­po­rary Stu­dent”, in At the Ren­dezvous of Vic­to­ry

  35. Robin­son, Black Marx­ism, 383. 

  36. C.L.R. James, “Black San­scu­lottes,” in At the Ren­dezvous of Vic­to­ry, 160. 

  37. James, “Lec­tures on The Black Jacobins,” 99. 

  38. James, Nkrumah and the Ghana Rev­o­lu­tion, 105. 

  39. Con­sid­er this remark­able if dis­putable pas­sage, where Robin­son tries to merge Oliv­er Cromwell Cox’s break with the Marx­ist his­tor­i­cal log­ic of cap­i­tal and James’s writ­ings on state-cap­i­tal­ism and the cat­a­strophism inher­ent in West­ern civ­i­liza­tion: “In his apoc­a­lyp­tic inter­pre­ta­tion of Moby Dick, James had fused the bureau­crat­ic strata of the the­o­ry of state-cap­i­tal­ism with Hegel’s ’world-his­tor­i­cal’ heroes, ’whose pas­sion­ate belief in the legit­i­ma­cy of their own pri­vate aims and inter­ests is such that they can­not abide any dis­par­i­ty between what they desire for them­selves and what the pub­lic moral­i­ty and legal sys­tem demand of men in gen­er­al’. And, in so doing, he had dou­bly damned the world-sys­tem, col­laps­ing onto a per­vert­ed sta­sis of the class strug­gle (the rule of the bureau­crats) the trag­ic spec­ta­cle of the self-extin­guish­ing and self-pos­sessed indi­vid­u­al. With­out achiev­ing syn­the­sis, James had jux­ta­posed con­flict­ing his­tor­i­cal par­a­digms: one order­ly, the oth­er entrop­ic and chaotic. In a gen­er­a­tion when dic­ta­tors had knifed through the fab­ric of his­to­ry, James had retrieved from Hegel’s phi­los­o­phy of his­to­ry a fig­ure genet­i­cal­ly linked to the mytho-ide­ol­o­gy of Judaeo-Chris­tian mes­sian­ism, a fig­ure that appears in Hegel’s frus­trat­ed expec­ta­tions of Fredrich Wil­helm and Napoleon, reap­pears as Nietzsche’s Super­man, and again as Weber’s charis­mat­ic lead­er. Marx had imag­ined that the indus­tri­al pro­le­tari­at was the hero of cap­i­tal­ism and had invent­ed a the­o­ry of his­to­ry whose nar­ra­tive jus­ti­fied this pre­sump­tion. James hon­oured that faith in the breach: choos­ing to rep­re­sent the destruc­tive and chaotic impuls­es of the cap­i­tal­ist world-sys­tem by the appear­ance of a new total­i­tar­i­an per­son­al­i­ty from whom the world could be sal­vaged only by the mobilised work­ing class­es. The par­a­digms were irrec­on­cil­able. Ahab pos­sessed the will and the insti­tu­tion­al author­i­ty to destroy his crew and anni­hi­late their social order. In James’s own expo­si­tion of Melville, the dialec­tic to which Marx had adhered, between mas­ter and slave, between cap­i­tal­ist and pro­le­tari­at, between man and nature, had proven itself inad­e­quate to the task of dis­rupt­ing the hor­ren­dous forces of cap­i­tal­ism.” Cedric J. Robin­son, “C.L.R. James and the World-Sys­tem,” Race & Class, 34, no. 2 (1999), 59-60. 

  40. see J.R. John­son [C.L.R. James], “Mar­cus Gar­vey” (1940), in C.L.R. James and the “Negro Ques­tion”, 114-16. 

Author of the article

teaches at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he co-directs the Centre for Philosophy and Critical Thought. He is the author of Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea, and Cartographies of the Absolute (with Jeff Kinkle). He is a member of the editorial board of Historical Materialism and is series editor of The Italian List at Seagull Books.