CLR JAMES, FRANTZ FANON AND THE MEANING OF LIBERATION
April 16, 2012 § 7 Comments
1776. 1789. 1917. The American. The French. The Russian. The three great revolutions of the modern world. The three revolutions with which everyone is familiar, each one telling a different story about modernity. Yet, as I argued in my previous post, the fourth great revolution that helped define modernity – the Haitian Revolution of 1791 - is one that barely anyone remembers these days. It was the first true successful revolt in history. But more than that, the Haitian Revolution was the first time that the emancipatory logic of the Declaration of the Rights of Man was seen through to its revolutionary conclusion. For that alone, it should find its place in history.
That we do remember the Haitian Revolution at all is largely due to the great Caribbean writer, thinker and revolutionary CLR James whose magnificent masterpiece The Black Jacobins eloquently captured both its political substance and its poetical spirit. An extraordinary synthesis of novelistic narrative and factual reconstruction (James had originally conceived of it as fiction, then wrote a play that was performed in London, with Paul Robeson in the lead role, before publishing the book in 1938), The Black Jacobins is a book that helped transform both the writing of history and history itself. ‘Men make their own history’, James wrote, ‘and the black Jacobins of San Domingo were to make history which would alter the fate of millions of men and shift the economic currents of three continents. But if they could seize opportunity, they could not create it.’ Three decades before historians such as Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm and EP Thompson began writing ‘history from below’, James told of how the slaves of Haiti had not simply been passive victims of their oppression but active agents in their own emancipation. In Toussaint L’Ouverture, the great leader of the revolution, he found a tragically flawed figure, whose story laid bare for James many of the paradoxes and ambiguities of liberation struggles in the modern world. And in telling the story both of the revolution and of its figurehead, James created a work that was to become indispensable to a new generation of Toussaint L’Ouvertures that, over the next three decades, helped lead the anti-colonial struggles in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean.
Born in 1901 in Trinidad, Cyril Lionel Robert James is one of those towering figures of the twentieth century who, like the revolution that he so eloquently depicted, is all too rarely recognized as such. Novelist and orator, philosopher and cricketer, historian and revolutionary, Trotskyist and Pan-Africanist – there are few modern figures who can match his intellectual depth, cultural breadth or sheer political contrariness. At the heart of all his work is the distinction he found in L’Ouverture, the distinction between the immorality of European colonialism and the moral necessity of many of the ideas that flowed out of Enlightenment culture. Indeed L’Ouverture was significant to James not just because he had led the first great slave revolution, but because, in so doing, he had made concrete that distinction. That significance reflected a shift both in the way that the Western elites had come to view the ‘Other’, and a conundrum that this had seemed to place at the heart of liberation struggles.
In the nineteenth century, race and class had been fused like oxygen to a red blood cell. By the twentieth, race had become primarily a means not of pointing up class distinctions but of branding the non-European other. The contempt for the herd so fervidly expressed by nineteenth century thinkers from Nietzsche to Zola, from Galton to Wagner, had not disappeared, but it had become sublimated. Race was now primarily a means of explaining and justifying imperial power. ‘What is Empire but the predominance of race?’, as the English liberal imperialist and prime minister Lord Roseberry observed. Between 1880 and the First World War, most of the world outside of Europe and the Americas was parcelled up into territories under the direct rule or indirect political control of a handful of European states, the USA and Japan. By the eve of the First World War, the British Empire covered one fifth of the world’s land mass and included a quarter of its people. Such scale confirmed a sense of inherent superiority. ‘I believe that the British race is the greatest of governing races the world has ever seen’, the influential British Liberal politician Joseph Chamberlain claimed, adding that this was not merely ‘an empty boast’, but ‘proved and shown by the success which we have had in administering vast dominions’. All must appreciate the ‘race importance’ wrote the soon-to-be US President Theodore Roosevelt of the struggle between whites and the rest; the elimination of the inferior races, ‘whose life was but a few degrees less meaningless, squalid and ferocious than that of the wild beasts’ would be ‘for the benefit of civilization and in the interests of mankind’, adding that it was ‘idle to apply to savages the rules of international morality that apply between stable and cultured communities’.
This inextricable entanglement of race and Empire posed difficult questions for those challenging European power. If Europe was responsible for the enslavement of more than half the world, what worth could there be in its political and moral ideas, which at best had had failed to prevent that enslavement, at worst had provided its intellectual grounding? Did not those challenging European imperialism also need to challenge its ideas? These were questions that became ever more urgent as the peoples of Africa and Asia, and migrants and descendants of slaves, too, started developing their own voices through literary and political movements from the Harlem Renaissance to the Indian National Congress.
James’ answer was clear. The moral force for James’ cosmopolitanism came out of the Enlightenment and, more broadly, out of the so-called ‘Western’ tradition. ‘We live in one world’, James wrote in his 1969 essay ‘Discovering Literature in Trinidad’, ‘and we have to find out what is taking place in the world. And I, a man of the Caribbean, have found that it is in the study of Western literature, Western philosophy and Western history that I have found out the things that I have found out, even about the underdeveloped countries.’ For James, the works of Sophocles and Shakespeare, of Dante and Descartes, of Melville and Marx, as much as of Tagore and Du Bois, Chinua Achebe and Langston Hughes, provided the peoples of Africa, Asia and the Americas with a means of breaking out of the particularities of their experiences and of entering a more universal form of discourse. At the same time the very fact that he had to take up the moral cudgels on behalf of the peoples of the Third World, the very fact of his anti-imperialism, was a reflection of the immorality of Europe’s treatment of non-European peoples. ‘I denounce European colonialism’, James wrote, ‘but I respect the learning and profound discoveries of Western civilisation.’ The problem, for James, lay not in the ideals of the Enlightenment but in their distortion, in the way in which they had been turned by Europeans into tribal values, for their benefit and for the enslavement of the rest of the world. James thought of himself not as crafting an alternative to Enlightenment values but as reclaiming them for all of humanity.
Of all the great twentieth century anti-colonial radicals, few so combined a hatred for racism and imperialism with such an admiration of Western philosophy and culture. Most third world radicals recognised with James, however, that the problem of racism and imperialism was not that it was a Western ideology, but that it was a system that often acted as an obstacle to the pursuit of the progressive ideals that arose out of the Enlightenment. Over time, though, opposition to European rule came increasingly to mean opposition to European ideas, too. Ideas, many insisted, were a means of effecting power. European ideas were tainted because they were a means of effecting European power. The ideals that flowed out of the Enlightenment, however progressive they might seem, could not be wielded by those challenging European rule. They grew out of a particular culture, history, and tradition, they spoke to a particular set of needs, desires and dispositions. Non-Europeans had to develop their own ideas, beliefs and values that grew out of their own distinct cultures, traditions, histories, psychological needs and dispositions.
Out of these claims came a host of separatist movements that set out to hew political, cultural and moral traditions distinct from those of Europeans. Already at the turn of the century Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey had created his ‘Back to Africa’ movement to help Africans ‘redeem’ their own continent. In the 1930s Aimé Césaire, Léopold Sédar Senghor, later to be president of the independent Senegal, and the French Guianan poet, politician and academic Léon Gontran Damas helped found the ‘Négritude’ movement. Césaire once wrote that Negritude was a means of answering the question that Senghor had asked of him when first they met: ‘Who am I? Who are we? What are we in this white world?’ Négritude was a literary and political movement that sought to answer this through the self-affirmation of black peoples, or the affirmation of the values of ‘black culture’. As Césaire was to put it his Discours sur la Négritude, ‘Négritude, in my eyes, is not a philosophy’ but ‘a way of living within history’. With ‘its deportation of populations, its transfer of people from one continent to another, its distant memories of old beliefs, its fragments of murdered cultures’, the history of black people is the history of community whose experience is ‘unique’. How, Césaire asks, ‘can we not believe that all this, which has its own coherence, constitutes a heritage?’, a heritage of ideas, beliefs, values, dreams, hopes and aspirations distinct from those of the Europeans. ‘European reasoning’, Senghor suggested, ‘is discursive, by utilization; Negro-African reasoning is intuitive by participation’. While this was always a controversial view, nevertheless Négritude, as the historian Stephen Howe observes, ‘set the tone for much ‘Third World’ and ethnic minority cultural nationalism that followed.’
One figure stood at the crossroads, looking back towards the universalist ideals of L’Ouverture and James and forward to the separatist visions that were to dominate. Frantz Fanon was a psychiatrist, philosopher and revolutionary who wrote two works that, perhaps more than any others, came to shape anti-colonial movements – Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth.
Born in 1925 into a middle-class family in the French colony of Martinique, Fanon attended the most prestigious school on the island where his teachers included Aimé Césaire. After the fall of France in 1940, he escaped the island to join the Free French forces. But at the moment of victory, as Allied troops were poised to cross the Rhine into Germany, along with photo journalists, Fanon’s regiment was ‘bleached’ of all non-white soldiers and Fanon and his fellow Caribbean soldiers were sent to Toulon on the Mediterranean instead, an experience that was deeply burnt into Fanon’s consciousness. After returning to Martinique to help his friend and mentor Aimé Césaire run for the French National Assembly on a communist ticket, Fanon went back to France to study medicine and psychiatry.
Fanon’s first book, Black Skins, White Masks, a reworking of a rejected doctoral thesis on ‘The Disalienation of the Black’, explored the psychological effects of racism and attempted to explain the roots of what he saw as the feelings of dependency and inadequacy that black people experienced in a white world. The colonized, he wrote, had to reject both the culture and the language of the coloniser: ‘To speak means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilisation’. It was an idea, indeed a sentence, that could have come straight from the pen of the eighteenth century German Romantic philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder whose ideas about human differences came to influence both racial claims and concepts of cultural pluralism. In speaking French, Fanon suggests, one is forced to accept the collective consciousness of the French, which identifies blackness with evil and sin. The black man (and Fanon’s polemic primarily addresses men) attempts to escape the association of blackness with evil by donning a white mask, by thinking of himself as a universal subject in a society that advocates an equality but which in reality treats those with black skins with contempt. He internalizes the cultural values of the colonizer, creating a self-perception divided between his cultural originality and the cultural code of the colonizer that he has been forced to appropriate and imitate. He necessarily becomes alienated from himself.
Fanon has picked up here Marx’s idea of individuals alienated by being confronted by the world they have helped to create. For Fanon, however, unlike for Marx, the world had been made alien not by distorted economic or social relationships, but by cultural and psychological dislocation. This shift from the social to the cultural, from the political to the psychological, was a change in perspective that would happen again and again, across a myriad social and political landscapes, throughout the twentieth century.
The Wretched of the Earth was written in 1961, at the very end of Fanon’s life, after he had been diagnosed with leukaemia and in the few months that he knew he had left. Taking the cue for the title from the first line of the Internationale (‘Stand up, ye damned of the Earth’), Fanon sets out his argument about how to break the binary system in which black is bad and white is good. Europeans, Fanon wrote ‘are never done talking of Man, yet murder men everywhere they find them, at the corner of every one of their own streets, in all the corners of the globe. For centuries they have stifled almost the whole of humanity in the name of a so-called spiritual experience.’ The West ‘saw itself as a spiritual adventure’. Yet, it is ‘in the name of the spirit of Europe that Europe has made her encroachments, that she has justified her crimes and legitimized the slavery in which she holds four-fifths of humanity.’ The peoples of the Third World ‘know with what sufferings humanity has paid for every one of their triumphs of the mind.’ For peoples of the colonized world to find their humanity they must ‘not imitate Europe’, nor ‘pay tribute to Europe by creating states, institutions and societies which draw their inspiration from her.’
And yet, for all his seeming disdain for European culture, for his all insistence that European ideas have helped enslave the non-European world, Fanon also accepted that, ‘All the elements of a solution to the great problems of humanity have, at different times, existed in European thought’. The problem was that ‘Europeans have not carried out in practice the mission which fell to them.’ The Third World will have to ‘start a new history of Man’, a new history that, while not forgetting ‘Europe’s crimes’, will nevertheless ‘have regard to the sometimes prodigious theses which Europe has put forward’.
In one sense, then, Fanon aligns himself with L’Ouverture and James. European thought contained within it ‘all the elements of a solution to the great problems of humanity’ but Europeans could not, or would not, combine those in thought and transform them into concrete reality. In another sense, though, he strides down a different course. Fanon is not simply ambiguous about European thought, but sees it as positively destructive of black culture and psychology.
Throughout his life, Fanon juggled with these two elements of his worldview. After his death, separatist groups, third world movements, students of post-colonial studies – all turned Fanon into an intellectual icon. But they did so largely by deprecating the universalist aspect of his thought in favour of the claim that the culture of the colonizer alienates the colonized from his own national culture.
Pan-Africanism, black nationalism, negritude, Islamism – purveyors of every separatist vision saw themselves as selling ‘anti-Western’ philosophies in contrast to those who had prostituted themselves to the European. Marcus Garvey, for instance, called the Marxist-influenced black leader WEB Du Bois, ‘purely and simply a white man’s nigger’, who had ‘no racial self-respect, no independent ideas’, but was simply ‘a little Dutch, a little French, a little Negro’, a ‘mulatto’, and so ‘a monstrosity’. In fact the separatists were hawking ideas as ‘Western’ as those of the universalists, just a different set of Western intellectual wares. Theirs was a pic’n’mix of Romantic stock, borrowed, sometimes consciously, at other times unintentionally, from Herder and Goethe, Coleridge and Burke, Renan and Taine. Garvey’s criticism of Du Bois as a ‘monstrosity’ because he was a ‘mulatto’ was a startling echo of Herder’s description of the Habsburg Empire as an artificial polyglot chimera which stitched together ‘a lion’s head with a dragon’s tail, an eagle’s wing, a bear’s paw’. Senghor’s distinction between the ‘analytical’ European and the ‘intuitive’ African not only called upon Romantic elevation of emotion over reason, but played to traditional racial stereotypes.
Enlightenment universalists had drawn on a multitude of traditions to weave their arguments, from Christianity to Islam, from Greece to China, arguments that challenged ideas that had traditionally dominated European thinking. The Romantics, on the other hand, had forged a specifically Western, and modern, reaction to the Enlightenment. Ironically, the separatists were arguably more ‘Western’ than the universalists.
Indeed, as European thinkers increasingly gave up on universalist ideas, it was left largely to Third World radicals to hold on to them. Western thinkers were often shocked by the extent to which anti-colonial movements adopted what they considered to be tainted notions. The Enlightenment concepts of universalism and social progress, the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss observed in his Structural Anthropology, found ‘unexpected support from peoples who desire nothing more than to share in the benefits of industrialisation; peoples who prefer to look upon themselves as temporarily backward than permanently different.’ Elsewhere, in The View from Afar, he noted that the doctrine of cultural relativism ‘was challenged by the very people for whose moral benefit the anthropologists had established it in the first place.’
Senghor, Césaire and Fanon, and most Third World intellectuals drawn towards separatism, acknowledged their debt to European thinkers, especially Marx, but also to others such as the sociologists Emile Durkheim and Max Weber. Historians of ‘Afrocentrism’ such as Stephen Howe and Valentin Mudimbe point out that the real impetus for separatism came, paradoxically, not from the colonized but from the colonizer. Or, rather, from Europeans who felt so guilty about European colonization that they felt could perceive little in European thought that remained untainted. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote prefaces both to Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth and to Senghor’s Anthology of New Negro Poetry. There is, he wrote in the former, ‘nothing more consistent than a racist humanism since the European has only been able to become a man through creating slaves and monsters’. Humanism, he wrote elsewhere, ‘is the counterpart of racism: it is a practice of exclusion’. Sartre’s input transformed the public perception of thinkers like Senghor and Fanon. It contributed greatly to the fame, particularly of the Anthology, and propelled Négritude into the broader intellectual conversation. But it also transformed Négritude itself, ‘stultified’ it, creating, in Stephen Howe’s words, ‘the rhetoric of absolute Otherness’. Senghor, Mudimbe observed, ‘had asked Sartre for a cloak to celebrate negritude; he was given a shroud.’