It is now a generation later. In the intervening years the Black radical tradition has matured, assuming new forms in revolutionary movements in Africa, the Caribbean, and North America. In the ideas of revolutionaries, among them Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah, Amilcar Cabral, Julius Nyerere, Robert Mugabe, Augustinho Neto, Eduardo Mondlane, Marcelino dos Santos, Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, Walter Rodney, and Angela Davis, Black radicalism has remained a currency of resistance and revolt. However, the evolution of Black radicalism has occurred while it has not been conscious of itself as a tradition. Doubtlessly there have been advantages to this. There have been no sacred texts to be preserved from the ravages of history. There have been no intellects or leaders whose authority secured ideological and theoretical conformity and protected their ideas from criticism. There has been no theory to inoculate the movements of resistance from change. But it, too, is certain that there have been disadvantages; partial comprehensions that it has now become imperative to transcend. The fractioning of African peoples is dysfunctional.
When separation was not possible, open revolts might fester; where rebellion was immediately impractical, the people prepared themselves through obeah, voodoo, Islam, and Black Christianity. Through these they induced charismatic expectations, socializing and hardening themselves and their young with beliefs, myths, and messianic visions that would allow them, someday, to attempt the impossible. Their history confirmed these processes; their fruition could be seen in the papaloi of the Haitian Revolution; the obeah men and women who crowd the trial records of slave rebellions in the Caribbean and elsewhere; the Muslim revolts in Brazil; the rebel preachers who appear at the center of resistance in Jamaica, Suriname, and North America.
[Also see p. 311 on this: The evidence of the tradition’s persistence and ideological vitality among the Black slave masses was to be found not only in the rebellions and the underground but as well in the shouts, the spirituals, the sermons, and the very textual body of Black Christianity.]
More frequently than not, the logic of racial domination that had already endured for centuries invoked no alternatives. On this score it had always to be an unequal contest, not because of the superiority of weapons or the preponderance of numbers but because such violence did not come naturally to African peoples. The civilizations of Europe and Africa in those terms had also been very different. For far longer than a millennium, the history of Europe had amounted to an almost uninterrupted chronology of fratricidal warfare and its celebration. The museums of the civilization are the current testament to that preoccupation, its histories chilling accounts. In Africa, where the incident of state and imperial formations and total warfare were rarer, conflict could and was more frequently resolved by migration and resettlement.
While vast reserves of labor were amassed in the Poor Houses and slums of Europe’s cities and manufacturing towns and villages, in the African hinterland some semblance of traditional life continued to reproduce itself, sharing its social product-human beings-with the Atlantic slave system. For those African men and women whose lives were interrupted by enslavement and transportation, it was reasonable to expect that they would attempt, and in some ways realize, the recreation of their lives. It was not, however, an understanding of the Europeans that preserved those Africans in the grasp of slavers, planters, merchants, and colonizers. Rather, it was the ability to conserve their native consciousness of the world from alien intrusion, the ability to imaginatively re-create a precedent metaphysic while being subjected to enslavement, racial domination, and repression. This was the raw material of the Black radical tradition, the values, ideas, conceptions, and constructions of reality from which resistance was manufactured. And in each instance of resistance, the social and psychological dynamics that are shared by human communities in long-term crises resolved for the rebels the particular moment, the collective and personal chemistries that congealed into social movement. But it was the materials constructed from a shared philosophy developed in the African past and transmitted as culture, from which revolutionary consciousness was realized and the ideology of struggle formed.
The radical nationalist movements of our time in Africa and the African diaspora have come at a historical moment when substantial numbers of the world's Black peoples are under threat of physical annihilation or the promise of prolonged and frightening debilitation. The famines have always accompanied the capitalist world system's penetration of societies have increased in intensity and frequency. The appearance of literally millions of Black refugees, drifting helplessly beyond the threshold of human sensibility, their emaciated bodies feeding on their own tissues, have become commonplace. The systematic attack on radical Black polities, and the manipulation of venal political puppets are now routine occurrences. Where Blacks were once assured some sort of minimal existence as a source of cheap labor, mass unemployment and conditions of housing and health that are of near-genocidal proportions obtain. The charades of neocolonialism and race relations have worn thin. In the metropoles, imprisonment, the stupor of drugs, the use of lethal force by public authorities and private citizens, and the more petty humiliations of racial discrimination have become epidemic. And over the heads of all, but most particularly those of the Third World, hangs the discipline of massive nuclear force. Not one day passes without confirmation of the availability and the willingness to use force in the Third World. It is not the province of one people to be the solution of the problem. But a civilization maddened by its own perverse assumptions and contradictions is loose in the world. A Black radical tradition formed in opposition to that civilization and conscious of itself is one part of the solution. Whether the other oppositions generated from within Western society and without will mature remains problematical. But for now, we must be as one.
If Marxists thought these black Christian radicals were insignificant or less important than, say, striking miners, the colonial state certainly did not: even the smallest challenge from these “sects” was met with immense repression and violence. At the very least, James anticipated a later generation of historians who viewed these religious-based movements as the source for some of the most violent anti-colonial contests of the twentieth century.
What is unique is James’s claim that revolutionary mass movements take forms that are often cultural and religious rather than explicitly political. He forces the reader to re-examine these seemingly odd movements with new eyes, to take the beliefs and superstitions of Africans and African descendants seriously. Perhaps he came to this conclusion independently, for his first and only novel, Minty Alley, and his 1936 play about Toussaint L’Ouverture, demonstrate an amazing sensitivity to the power or religion and culture as major social and political forces in black life. Or perhaps he was moved, as many people were, when he reached page 124 of DuBois’s Black Reconstruction and found his brilliant defense of the power of the Divine: “Foolish talk, all of this, you say, of course; and that is because no American now believes in his religion. Its facts are mere symbolism; its revelation vague generalities; its ethics a matter of carefully balanced gain. But to most of the four million black folk emancipated by civil war, God was real. They knew Him. They had met Him personally in many a wild orgy of religious frenzy, or in the black stillness of the night.”
It was as a Trotskyist that James would author The Black Jacobins, the work for which he is best known. First published in 1938, this still formidable study of the Haitian and French revolutions and their signification for British abolitionism, was at one and the same time an analysis of the relationship between revolutionary masses and leadership, and an attempt to establish the historical legacy of African revolutionary struggles. Within the same volume it is not difficult to unearth a critique of Stalinism, an expression of Trotsky’s concept of permanent revolution, and the elaboration of Lenin’s theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat—all constructed upon Marx’s extraordinary determination of the primitive, that is, the imperialist accumulation of capital. It was from the beginning recognized as an extraordinary work. We will return to it shortly.
James finished the work, harvesting all these materials. He culled them in order to present one of the most exciting historical constructions to be produced by a Marxist thinker. Patiently, deliberately, systematically, but always mediated by his lyrical and sometimes mischievous literary "voice," he distilled from 300 years of European history the processes and lineages of the contending forces within the proletarian movement: the revolutionary petit bourgeoisie and the working masses. The former, he maintained, made its first appearance in the English Civil War of the seventeenth century as radical democrats; the latter were the social basis for the revolutionary masses behind the French Revolution. However, each had undergone transformations through the long years, but of capitalism. these two opposing historical forces had at last reached their final articulation in Stalinism and Fascism. In Stalinism, the petit bourgeoisie had organized the attempted destruction of the revolutionary proletariat. The petit bourgeoisie began by using the workers to destroy the bourgeoisie and then the suppression of the workers' movement had followed. In Fascism, the petit bourgeoisie had become the social instrument of the increasingly desperate bourgeoisie in the effort to destroy the same historical subject: the workers' movement. Together Fascism and Stalinism constituted the objective movement (centralization) of capitalist organization. The continuing development of the organization of capitalist production and the bureaucratic administration of state capitalism had called forth a petit bourgeois class of enormous skill, responsibility, and ambitions. Within those same centuries, then, though it was possible to trace the maturation of the bourgeoisie and the working classes, it was also necessary to recognize the transformation of the petit bourgeoisie. It was necessary because this strata had presume the leadership of the proletarian movement and then betrayed it. Now the radical intelligentsia at the service of the proletarian revolution—activists like those in the Johnson-Forest tendency—had to respond to these events. First it had to comprehend them, ceasing to identify the perversion of petit bourgeois leadership with the authentic forces of the revolution. Second, the "vanguard of the vanguard" had to assist the proletariat in the destruction of the "revolutionary proletarian" bureaucracy. The direction of the world was in the hands of the workers: "The proletariat will decide. The thing is to tell the proletariat to decide" (p.181).
Reconstruction was an economic revolution on a mighty scale and with world-wide reverberation. Reconstruction was not simply a fight between the white and black races in the South or between master and ex-slave. It was much more subtle; it involved more than this. There have been repeated and continued attempts to paint this era as an interlude of petty politics or nightmare of race hate instead of viewing it slowly and broadly as a tremendous series of efforts to earn a living in new and untried ways, to achieve economic security and to restore fatal losses of capital and investment. It was a vast labor movement of ignorant, earnest, and bewildered black men whose faces had been ground in the mud by their three awful centuries of degradation and who now staggered forward blindly in blood and tears amid petty division, hate and hurt, and surrounded by every disaster of war and industrial upheaval. Reconstruction was a vast labor movement of ignorant, muddled and bewildered white men who had been disinherited of land and labor and fought a long battle with sheer subsistence, hanging on the edge of poverty, eating clay and chasing slaves and now lurching up to manhood. Reconstruction was the turn of white Northern migration southward to new and sudden economic opportunity which followed the disaster and dislocation of war, and an attempt to organize capital and labor on a new pattern and build a new economy. Finally Reconstruction was a desperate effort of a dislodged, maimed, impoverished and ruined oligarchy and monopoly to restore an anachronism in economic organization by force, fraud and slander, in defiance of law and order, and in the face of a great labor movement of white and black, and bitter strife with a new capitalism and a new political framework.
The new organization of Northern wealth was not comparable to the petty bourgeoisie which seized power after the overthrow of European feudalism. It was a new rule of associated and federated monarchs of industry and finance wielding a vaster and more despotic power than European kings and nobles ever held. It was destined to subdue not simply Southern agrarianism but even individual wealth and brains in the North which were creating a new petty bourgeoisie of small merchants and skilled artisans.
It was inconceivable, therefore, that the masters of Northern industry through their growing control of American government, were going to allow the laborers of the South any more real control of wealth and industry than was necessary to curb the political power of the planters and their successors. As soon as the Southern landholders yielded to the Northern demands of a plutocracy, at that moment the military dictatorship should be withdrawn and a dictatorship of capital allowed unhampered sway.
We see this more clearly today than the nation of 1868, or any of its leader, could possibly envisage it; but even then, Northern industry knew that universal suffrage in the South, in the hands of Negroes just freed from slavery, and of white people still enslaved by poverty, could not stand against organized industry. They promptly calculated that the same method of controlling the labor vote would come in vogue in the South s they were already using in the North, and that the industry which used these methods must in the meantime cooperate with Northern industry; that it could not move the foundation stones upon which Northern industry was consolidating its power; that is, the tariff, the money system, the debt, and national in place of state control of industry. This would seem to be what the masters of exploitation were counting upon and it certainly came true in the bargain of 1876.
Thus by singular coincidence and for a moment, for the few years of an eternal second in a cycle of a thousand years, the orbits of two widely and utterly dissimilar economic systems coincided and the result was a revolution so vast and portentous that few minds ever fully conceived it; for the systems were these: first, that of a democracy which should by universal suffrage establish a dictatorship of the proletariat ending in industrial democracy; and the other, a system by which a little knot of masterful men would so organize capitalism as to bring under their control the natural resources, wealth and industry of a vast and rich country and through that, of the world. For a second, for a pulse of time, these orbits crossed and coincided, but their central suns were a thousand light-years apart, even though the blind and ignorant fury of the South and the complacent Philistinism of the the North saw them as one.
Thaddeus Stevens died August 11, 1868, three weeks after the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment was announced, and in his last breath and even after death, stood true to his principles. "Two colored clergymen called, and asked leave to see Stevens and pray with him. He ordered them to be admitted; and when they had come to his bedside, he turned and held out his hand to one of them. They sang a hymn and prayed…. It was then within ten minutes of midnight and the end was to come before the beginning of the new day. He lay motionless for a few minutes, then opened his eyes, took one look, placidly closed them, and, without a struggle, the great commoner had ceased to breathe."
Thaddeus Stevens was buried in a colored graveyard. Upon the monument there is the following inscription, prepared by himself: "I repose in this quiet and secluded spot, not from any natural preference for solitude, but finding other cemeteries limited as to race by charter rules, I have chosen this, that I might illustrate in my death the principles which I advocated through a long life, [the] Equality of Man before his Creator."
As Charles Sumner said, "Already he takes his place among illustrious names, which are the common property of mankind. I see him now, as I have so often seen him during life. His venerable form moves slowly and with uncertain steps; but the gathered strength of years in his countenance and the light of victory on his path. Politician, calculator, time-server, stand aside! a hero statesman passes to his reward!"
Who in 1867 represented the considered will of the people of the United States? Certainly not Andrew Johnson, backed by Northern copperheads and the supporters of a futile attempt at secession. Just as certainly two-thirds of the member s of congress, with the South excluded as it had been excluded for six terrible years, had a clear right to express the repeatedly registered popular will.
The problem was a difficult one. When can a ruler rule in the United States? The nation by overwhelming majority had declared for union, for emancipation to preserve the Union, for no increase in the political power of the white South, and for Negro suffrage to prevent this increased political power and reward Negro loyalty.
This clear will of the majority of the people, represented in Congress, was frustrated by a President who repeatedly refused to obey the plain mandate of the party which elected him. Johnson virtually declared Congress illegal because the South was unrepresented. Congress denied that a criminal could be his own judge. Who could settle this dispute? By the whole theory of party government, a President must be at least in general accord with his party. His utmost power should no go beyond a suspensory veto compelling a plebiscite. Yet no president in the history of the United States up to this time had used the veto power like Andrew Johnson to oppose the expressed will of the nation. In twenty-three cases, he opposed his will to the will of Congress, while Andrew Jackson, his closest competitor, made only eleven vetoes and pocket vetoes. Party responsibility in government was absolutely blocked in a time of crisis. Under any, even partial, theory of such responsibility, Johnson would have been compelled to resign: but the unantiquated constitutional requirements of a system of laws built another age and for entirely different circumstances were now being applied to unforeseen conditions.
The Constitution made the removal of the President contingent upon his committing "high crimes and misdemeanors." Here then came a plain question of definition: was it a crime, in the judgment of the people of the United States in 1867, for a president to block the overwhelming will of a successful majority of voters during a period of nearly three years? [Thaddeus] Stevens and those who followed him said that it was. They did not all pretend that Johnson was personally a criminal with treasonable designs, although some believed even that; on the other hand it was clear even to many of Johnson's friends that he was "an unfit person to be President of the United States." They all did assert that he had broken the rules by which responsible government could be carried on.
In the third annual message of Andrew Johnson, December 3, 1867, all masking of the Negro problem is removed. He is no longer evasive at to the relation of the black worker to the white worker and his whole economic argument is drowned in race hate. There is no suggestion that Negro soldiers of Negro property owners or Negroes who can read and write should have any political rights. He bases his whole argument flatly on the inferiority of the Negro race.
"It is the glory of white men," he proclaims magniloquently, "to know that they have had these qualities in sufficient measure to build upon this continent a great political fabric and to preserve its stability for more than ninety years, while in every other part of the world all similar experiments have failed. But if anything can be proved by known facts, if all reasoning upon evidence is not abandoned, it must be acknowledged that in progress of nations, Negroes have shown less capacity for government than any other race of people. No independent government of any form has ever been successful in their hands. On the contrary, wherever they have been left to their own devices they have shown a constant tendency to relapse in to barbarism. In the Southern States, however, Congress has undertaken to confer upon them the privilege of the ballot. Just released from slavery, it may be doubted whether as a class the know more than their ancestor how to organize and regulate civil society. Indeed, it is admitted that the blacks of the South are not only regardless of the rights of property, but so utterly ignorant of public affairs that their voting can consist in nothing more than carrying a ballot to the place where they are directed to offer it.
"The great difference between the two races in physical, mental and moral characteristics will prevent an amalgamation or fusion of them together in one homogeneous mass. If the inferior obtains the ascendency over the other, it will govern with reference only to its own interests—for it will recognize no common interest—and create such a tyranny as this continent has never yet witnessed. Already the Negroes are influenced by promises of confiscation and plunder. They are taught to regard as an enemy every white man who has any respect for the rights of his own race. If this continues it must become worse and worse, until all order will be subverted, all industry cease, and the fertile fields of the south grow up into a wilderness. Of all the dangers which our nation has yet encountered, none are equal to those which must result from the success of the effort now making to Africanize the half of our country."