A profound thinker
by Peppino Ortoleva
translated by Noel Ignatin
Urgent Tasks - Number 12
Summer 1981

One of the best ways of distinguishing a truly profound thinker from others perhaps suggestive and intelligent but superficial is the fact that the former's writings are able to be read in different ways in different times, to give, to each new question, a new answer. In other words, the profound thinker is worth rereading. C. L. R. James is one of these thinkers.

I read The Black Jacobins, the first time, almost ten years ago. At that reading it seemed to me singularly well written (a quality found too rarely); but above all it seemed an exemplary analysis of a revolutionary process: able to pick up all the complexity and richness without underestimating the aspects of tortuousness and uncertainty, able to pick up, in mutual interdependence, but also partial autonomy, the social, political and economic components. It constituted, in substance, a mine of suggestions and observations on a revolution which had taken place, which a revolutionary could make use of in his political activity.

I reread The Black Jacobins this past month. Naturally, I found there what I had found when I read it the first time. But this time I had different problems while I was reading it: the recurring triumph of the enemies of mankind, even within the ranks of the revolutionaries (a problem which C. L. R. James had addressed many times in the course of his, fortunately, long life), required of me, and requires of me, that I take up the challenge of what seems to me the most intimate weakness of the Marxist philosophy of history, and perhaps of any philosophy of history, the obstinate claim to give a unitary, global and linear sense to historical development. Rereading it in this light, it was easy to see The Black Jacobins as an openly and fruitfully heretical work, and to understand the consistency of that heresy with other singular and important aspects of the author's work.

The choice of subject is already uncomfortable for a determinist Marxism: an anti-colonial revolution preceding the epoch of imperialism, a revolution that carries to power slaves who have not reached the stage of wage labor: no accident that Marxism, before James, had not taken up that great revolution so difficult to place on the agenda of evolution. And then, what on first reading had appeared to me simply as literary felicity now revealed its true root: the attention to the political, but also ethical choices of the individual, the refusal to reduce to pure symbol or symptom the superindividual entities the field. And this is valid not only for the great Toussaint but for the protagonists of that great event. The concept, by itself banal, "history is made by man," is applied by James in a non-banal fashion: that it is to the individual, well as to the collective movement, that one must look. Because it is individual hands, and not only those of the collective movement that are weighed the choices that lead from a given situation to one of the many future possibilities, that make history.

The secret of that rebellious and non-deterministic Marxism is found, perhaps. at another point in James's where (as in Dialectics and History) he underlines that the will of the oppressed mass to impose its own rule and its own free sociability is not limited to a specific phase economic and social development, to a particular technology or class structure, but crosses history, at least Western post-Christian history, in its entirety. In his reading of history, therefore, the dynamic of development and of the succession. of various modes of production is intertwined with the extraordi- nary permanence of what we have sometimes called the "need for communism," that one can also call the need for human liberation. To that permanence of class oppression, that cuts across human history in its entirety, is counterposed, therefore, the need for liberation: a clash which, in actual history, is as determinant as the regular succession of the forces and relations of production.

It is thanks to that complex, nonevolutionary dialectic that James is able to identify, in history and in society, the true protagonists, those who do not wait on orderly progress to make themselves felt: he could understand Toussaint and the Garveyites, the African liberation movements (which everyone had ignored, thinking that it would always be Europe that decided the fate of the world) and the American workers, on whom already at thit time, no Marxist was ready to bei, a penny. It is thanks to that dialectic that James has been able to teach us to read not only history, but Melville and baseball, transforming his limitless and thirsty curiosity into a tool of knowledge.

Peppino Ortoleva teaches American studies at the University of Torino and is a long-time participant in the extra-parliamentary Italian left.

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