Toward a Counter-Genealogy of Race: On C.L.R. James

CLR James and Léon Damas at at the second Congress of African People in San Diego in 1972.

The Trinidadian-born writer and activist C.L.R James is considered today to be one of the principal forerunners of a theory of the relations between race and class. As a leading Marxist theorist, James always stressed the fundamental importance of the notion of class struggle, and closely followed developments in revolutionary working-class struggles in Europe and the United States. This did not prevent him, however, from analyzing and taking part in movements for decolonization: in 1938, he authored a famous history of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins; in the 1940s, he was seen as a specialist on the “Negro Question” within North American Trotskyist movements; he also had ties to African independence leaders – Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, and later, Julius Nyerere in Tanzania – and he became involved in “party politics” himself during the time leading up to Trinidadian  independence. James strove to reposition Pan-Africanist struggles within a global revolutionary history, by interpreting them in light of Marxist theory and historiography; the latter, in turn, was reshaped through the lens of the experience of (de)colonization. He foregrounded and thematized the relations between class oppression and racial oppression as well as the connections between struggles for emancipation waged by subaltern groups with their own autonomous demands.

But does this necessarily mean that as a Marxist, James thinks race in the same way he thinks class? Does a concept of race exist in his writings, one invested with a specific theoretical and/or political function, beyond the attention he pays to actual instances of racial domination? Answering this question not only entails contributing to the exegesis of James’s work, which remains largely to be discovered in France, but also a reexamination of the problem – generally posed in the form of a binary alternative, and which is a recurring issue in debates among academics as well as activists and militants – of determining whether “race” needs to be mobilized in order to think the condition of racialized groups, the modalities of their emancipation, and strategies of anti-racism, or if this would mean adopting the same logic as the adversary and thus participating in an extension of racism. A heuristic approach to this problem consists in retracing a counter-genealogy of race, that is, a history that is not concerned with the genesis of modern racism so much as the usages that have been made out of the notion of race against racial domination and the knowledges that it relies on. 1 It is through this perspective that we will consider James’s work.

The Absence of Race

It would be legitimate to object that these counter-deployments of race presuppose the formation of the notion of racism, and remain closely linked to the denunciation and deconstruction of the latter. However, it’s clear that the term “racism” is a recent invention: from a discursive point of view, racism did not exist before the 1930s, and usage of the term remained marginal until the 1950s-1960s. As Nicolas Martin-Breteau has already emphasized in regards to the case of African Americans, from the end of the 19th century and into the first half of the 20th, “racial prejudice” was the more common term. 2 Racial prejudice referred to, above all, an ensemble or set of opinions and sentiments that appeared to be spontaneous and largely unthought or unconscious; whereas racism not only includes the meaning of racial prejudice (to which it is often still reduced), but also allows for a critical understanding of the formation of prejudice through its institutionalization and (pseudo) scientificity: struggling against racial prejudices cannot therefore have exactly the same sense as struggling against racism.

Published in London in 1938, The Black Jacobins was no exception. James repeatedly makes recourse to the notion of racial prejudice, but never that of racism: “The prejudice of race is superficially the most ir­rational of all prejudices.” 3 At times, James will substitute the term “race feeling,” correctly showing that race is a surface phenomenon, charged or loaded as it is, whose deep, rational causes defy or escape all explanation in terms of race. As for the “racial question,” he tends to consider it as basically secondary: “In a slave society the mere possession of personal free­dom is a valuable privilege, and the laws of Greece and Rome testify that severe legislation against slaves and freedmen have nothing to do with the race question.” 4 While never dismissive of the specificity of anticolonial struggle, James nonetheless affirms that the struggle of the slaves in Saint-Domingue was entirely governed by the the law of class struggle, from which he derives the following claim: “The race question is subsidiary to the class question in politics, and to think of imperialism in terms of race is disastrous.” 5 There is a subordination of race to class.

Near the end of 1938, James travels to the United States. There, he begins to insist on the autonomy of black struggles, understood as the condition of possibility for their participation in the socialist revolution. Oppressed among the oppressed, African Americans were called upon to form the vanguard of the American revolutionary movement. The fact remained that their own struggle was still dependent upon the advances of the struggle of the working masses as a whole, which James points out during a 1960 speech in Trinidad:

The great problem of the United States, with all due respect to the colour of the majority of my audience, is not the Negro Question. (If this question of the workers’ independent political organization were solved the Negro Question would be solved. As long as this is not solved the Negro Question will never be solved). 6

In a letter written a year later, he lamented the predominance of the racial question within Facing Reality, the revolutionary organization that he helped found several years before: “To stress only the race angle is to surrender the… treatment of the question either to the liberals, on the one hand, who see only the extension of Rights, or the Muslims, on the other hand, who see only the extension of Race.” 7

For James, there is no “we, Blacks” – he almost always talks about African-Americans in the third-person. Instead, he appeals to fellow Trotskyists “upon the basis of the impetus to thinking, study, and penetration in the Negro movement and observation of the Negroes in the trade union movement”; and it is first of all himself to whom he refers when he mentions “anyone who knows them, who knows their history, is able to talk to them intimately.” 8 James seems to have never really developed a racial consciousness, something that sets him apart from other intellectuals and militants originally from the Antilles (Marcus Garvey, Frantz Fanon, Stokely Carmichael, etc.). In a 1931 article published in Trinidad, he claims to have not been “touchous [overly sensitive] on” the race question. 9 Two years later, he underscores that there are racial prejudices in the West Indies, but no forms of “racial antagonism” – there is no division or segregation between races. 10 This position is reiterated in his pamphlet on the history of Pan-African struggles, A History of Negro Revolt, in which he states, regarding Trinidad: “race feeling is not acute at normal times.” 11 In an autobiographical passage from his 1963 social history of cricket, Beyond A Boundary, James recalls having been the victim of racial prejudice in Trinidad when, wanting to serve in World War I to be able to “see the world,” he found himself abruptly turned away because of the color of his skin. But this experience was quickly forgotten, and “no scar was left.” 12 The education he received at the prestigious Queen’s Royal College in Port of Spain, the quintessential school of the Empire, rendered him colorblind, blind to the race question: “in our little Eden, it never troubled us.” 13

This absence of race is also evident in James’s writings on Western literature and tragedies. An admirer of Melville, especially Moby Dick, to which he devoted a whole book, he does not mention the central motif of the whale’s whiteness and the mesmerizing power this exerts over the narrator, Ishmael. The argument that “the white whale is the ideology of race,” eventually developed by Toni Morrison, still remains totally foreign to James. 14 His reading of Benito Cereno, a novel that depicts a slave mutiny on a Spanish ship, is also significant. Regardless of whether there is a consensus on the question of this work being proof of Melville’s racism, or if he rather derided racist attitudes, critics can nonetheless agree that in this novel, race presents a problem. James, although he affirms that Melville did not just write about slaves but the “black race” as a whole, is content to consign this point to a simplistic analysis: “Captain Delano is one of those white men who not only understands but who loves Negroes.” 15 The reason for this is that what interests James is not the race question strictly speaking, but the relation of the West to (economically and politically) “backward peoples” in general. 16

What here remains in absentia will become, in James’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s Othello, a veritable refusal of race. In his correspondence with Constance Webb, his future wife throughout the 1940s, he welcomed the fact that Paul Robeson, the African-American actor, singer, and activist, was able to play the role of Othello on Broadway, the “Moor of Venice,” thus placing the black question center stage. This did not stop James from denying, twenty years later, any import of the race question in Othello: “I say with the fullest confidence, that you could strike out every single reference to Othello’s black skin and the play would be essentially the same.” 17 He reiterates: “there is not a word about his race”; “race has nothing to do with it.” 18 Is there not, in James’s evocation of our “race-ridden consciousness,” an implicit critique of the importance accorded to the race question at the onset of the 1960s, which in his opinion was disproportionate or excessive? For him, what characterizes Othello’s position is much more the fact that the Moor is a stranger or foreigner, an outsider in relation to the “state and civilization of Venice.” In the same period, James would also understand his own relation to the West, and the Caribbean more generally, as an outsider: “We were members of [the same] civilization [as the British] and take part in it, but we come from outside… we don’t really belong.” 19 It seems that James thought that his own destiny, like that of Othello, was not dependent on the color of his skin, determined by his race. In actual fact, James’s relation to the race question will be more complex than previous analyses have suggested.

Paul Robeson as Othello

Thinking Race Otherwise

In the preface to Beyond a Boundary, James writes: “To establish his own identity, Caliban, after three centuries, must himself pioneer into regions that Caesar never knew.” 20 Caliban is the “abject and malformed” savage of Shakespeare’s Tempest, a piece which hardly seemed to interest James in his reflections on Shakespearean drama, as opposed to Hamlet, King Lear, or, appropriately, Julius Caesar. But the Prospero-Caliban relation would soon become an archetype for colonial-racial relations, as seen in Aimé Césaire’s 1969 adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest “for a black theater,” where he transformed Caliban into a black slave rebelling against his white master. 21 If James remained unaware of this (re)interpretation of the The Tempest along racial lines, it is significant that he not only mentions Caliban’s name, but that he does so from an autobiographical perspective: James is Caliban, he is someone who has to tread a different path than Caesar, the European, the white man.

This encourages us to take a closer look at James’s colorblindness. If the “race question” in Trinidad barely bothered the young James, it was paradoxically because “it was there,” visible to all. In the Caribbean context, race is not operative in terms of binary divisions, which would then be the source of racial antagonism, but rather as a principle of social organization and the most diffuse assigning of places, more fluid and less violent in appearance at least. Race therefore acts as a norm; and this normalization transforms its hypervisibility into invisibility, rendering it imperceptible and unthinkable. There is definitely a conception of race, then, but one which escapes the predominant schema of racial differentiation.

James did not ignore, however, that the logic of racial separation was indeed at work elsewhere. During his first stay in the United States, he experienced segregation far more intensely than his political writings on the “Negro question” would let on. In a 1939 letter to Webb, he conveys his first encounters in the South in these terms:

There are taxis for white and taxis for black… People have been warning me and I have said, “Oh, I’ll manage,” perhaps with too much confidence… I shall get through of course… but the feeling of uncertainty shows me how terribly the minds and characters of Negroes must be affected… When I see you sometime, I shall tell you some things about Negroes, things which I have experienced in my own person, and I will give you some idea about what goes on in a Negro’s mind. 22

In African-American literature, too, James discovers what racial oppression is subjectively, in the first person, for black Americans. James argues that Richard Wright, through the character of Bigger Thomas in Native Son, managed to capture the lived experience of black people in the United States: “The great majority of them feel as Bigger feels, think as Bigger thinks, and hate as Bigger hates.” 23 Wright shows that the consciousness of African-Americans is necessarily a racial consciousness: “In a profound sense Bigger Thomas is a ‘typical’ Negro. His hatred of whites, his sense of his wrongs and his forcibly limited life, his passionate desire to strike at his enemies, all this is racial.” 24

In James’s work, there is actually the sketch of a more extensive theory of racism beyond the single problem of racial prejudice. The political construction of modern Europe, as he affirms in discussing the genesis of totalitarianism, is founded on the formation of national states that each possessed a “racial doctrine.” From this perspective, Hitlerism is nothing other than the ultimate byproduct of the “theory of the superiority of the national race.” On the other hand, the Communist regime in Russia after the degeneration of the 1917 Revolution manifests at the economic level what Nazism expresses on the political level: the domination of the “superior race.” If this form of racism remains intra-European, in the Black Jacobins, James outlines a critique of the “racial theories” populating the historiography of the Haitian Revolution. He specifically attacks the American historian Lothrop Stoddard, whose The French Revolution in San Domingo articulates “his vendetta against the Negro race” by claiming that “the white race destroyed itself in San Domingo through its determination to preserve its racial purity.” 25 Stoddard’s book provides a “typical example of the cloud of lies which obscure the true history of imperialism in colonial countries.” 26 The writing of history was also the terrain where the struggle against racial oppression had to be waged: “The only place where Negroes did not revolt is in the pages of capitalist historians.” 27

The problem of race also re-emerges at the very center of the revolutionary process in Haiti, in its final phase. After the arrest of Toussaint Louverture and his imprisonment in France, Jean-Jacques Dessalines inherited the task of bringing the revolution to its completion by leading the war of independence: “The colony was devastated, and blacks and whites were murdering each other with a growing ferocity, in what was called a race war.” 28 But James in no way endorses this race war discourse, reaffirming that this extreme racialization of the conflict remains subordinate to the class struggle, as its “origin was not in their differ­ent colours but in the greed of the French bourgeoisie.” 29 Events would not have gone differently in France: whether the “monarchists [had] been white, the bourgeoisie brown, and the masses of France black, the French Revolution would have gone down in history as a race war.” 30 James still does not deny any role of the racial factor in the war of independence: “It was a war not so much of armies as of the people. It was now a war with the racial divisions emphasizing the class struggle – blacks and Mulattoes against whites.” 31 In Saint-Domingue, race played what could be called an intensifying role – even an overdetermining role – in class conflicts. This was already specifically understood by French revolutionaries like Léger-Félicité Sonthonax, when he called for an end to “the aristocrats of the skin” ruling over the territory. 32

James also suggests that said race war – the conclusion of the Haitian Revolution – could have been avoided if only the race question had not been previously obscured. Although imperialism defies an explanation completely in terms of race, James still declares that “to neglect the racial factor as merely incidental [is] an error only less grave than to make it funda­mental.” 33 Toussaint Louverture committed this precise error, which precipitated his downfall: he dismissed the profound fears held by the black masses regarding the “old slave-owning whites,” and then allowed others to suspect that he was “taking the side of the whites against the blacks.” 34 In James’s view, this was an error “in method” and not “in principle.” In his relegation of the problem of race to a secondary concern, Toussaint was correct in terms of political theory, but fundamentally wrong from the viewpoint of revolutionary strategy. As James would later affirm in regards to the conditions of Marxism’s exportation to the United States, even though its “principles and doctrines… have a universal application,” which is all the more true in this case, their actualization in different historical and geographic contexts than those in which they arise always entails a process of “translation.” 35 All things being equal, Toussaint’s error was to have not completed the translation of the ideas and ideals of the French Revolution into the context of colonialism and slavery. If he had, he could have given the race question its proper, albeit relative, place in the uprising of the Saint-Domingue slaves – unless, and this is a line of inquiry that would go beyond what James argues and can only remain open, Toussaint actually encountered the inherent limits of the translatability of the doctrines and principles inherited from the Enlightenment, at the borders of their potential for universalization.

The analysis of James’s thought elaborated here is only a preliminary to what we have called a counter-genealogy of race. It also demonstrates that tracing this genealogy could assist us in overcoming the aporias that stall contemporary debates around race – by moving beyond their confinement to a binary logic of either the unconditional affirmation or absolute rejection of the notion of race, and thus beyond the opposition between the idea of the autonomy of racial questions and that of their subordination to other factors, above all class. This task requires suspending any pre-given conception of race in order to shed light on the heterogeneous, and sometimes contradictory, historical instances of a counter-concept of race within struggles against racial oppression. Writing such a history could be essential for us today, as we decide whether or not anti-racism requires a concept of race.

This essay originally appeared in Vacarme.

-Translated by Patrick King


1 A similar approach that also takes James as its point of departure can be found in Josh Myers, “A Validity of its Own: C.L.R. James and Black Independence, The Black Scholar (August 2015).
2 Nicolas Martin-Breteau, “Corps politiques: Sport et combats civiques des Africains-Américains à Washington, D.C., et Baltimore (v. 1890-v. 1970),” doctoral thesis, under the direction of François Weil, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (November 2013), 440-450, 571-585.
3 C.L.R. James , The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (New York” Vintage Books, 1989), 120.
4 Ibid., 38.
5 Ibid., 283.
6 C.L.R. James, Modern Politics (Oakland: PM Press, 2013), 45, cited in Tony Martin, “C.L.R. James and the Race/Class Question,” Race, 14.2 (1972) 183-193, 188.
7 J.R. Johnson [C.L.R. James], Marxism and the Intellectuals (Detroit: Facing Reality, 1962), 14, cited in Martin, op. cit., 191.
8 J. Meyer [C.L.R. James], “The Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Question in the U.S.,” Fourth International, 9.8 (December 1948), 242-251.
9 C.L.R. James, “The Intelligence of the Negro,” in Toussaint Louverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013), 198.
10 C.L.R. James, “A Century of Freedom,” in ibid., 203.
11 C.L.R. James, A History of Pan-African Revolt (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 1995), 106.
12 C.L.R. James, Beyond a Boundary, (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), 31.
13 Ibid., 30.
14 Toni Morrison, Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature, cited in Samuel Otter, Melville’s Antinomies (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 298.
15 C.L.R. James, Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In (New York: Schocken, 1985), 118.
16 Ibid., 119.
17 C.L.R. James, “‘Othello’ and ‘The Merchant of Venice,’” in Spheres of Existence: Selected Writings (London: Allison & Busby, 1980), 141-150, 141.
18 Ibid., 142.
19 C.L.R. James, “Discovering Literature in Trinidad,” in op. cit. (1980), 237-244, 244.
20 James, op. cit. (1993), xxi.
21 Aimé Césaire, Une tempête (Paris : Le Seuil, 1997 [1969]).
22 C.L.R. James, Special Delivery: The Letters of C.L.R. James to Constance Webb, ed. Anna Grimshaw (Cambridge: Blackwell, 1996), 45.
23 J.R. Johnson [C.L.R. James], “On Native Son by Richard Wright,” in C.L.R. James on the “Negro Question,ed. Scott McLemee (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1996), 55-58.
24 J.R. Johnson [C.L.R. James], “Native Son and Revolution: A Review of Native Son by Richard Wright,” in C.L.R. James and Revolutionary Marxism: Selected Writings of C.L.R. James, 1939-1949, ed. Scott McLemee and Paul Le Blanc (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1994), 88-92, 89.
25 James, op. cit. (1989), 388.
26 Ibid., 259 n.16.
27 J.R. Johnson [C.L.R. James], “The Revolution and the Negro,” in C.L.R. James and Revolutionary Marxism, op. cit., 77-87, 77.
28 James, op. cit. (1989), 355.
29 Ibid.
30 Ibid., 128.
31 Ibid., 359.
32 Ibid., 120.
33 Ibid., 283.
34 Ibid., 284.
35 C.L.R. James, “The Americanization of Bolshevism,” appendix to American Civilization (London: Blackwell, 1993), 283-292.

Author of the article

holds a doctorate in political philosophy (Université de Paris Diderot and Università degli Studia di Bologna) and is a researcher at Les Afriques dans le Monde (CNRS, Sciences Po Bordeaux). He was previously a postdoctoral researcher at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is the author of Frantz Fanon: De l'anticolonialisme à la critique postcoloniale (2011) and L'Amérique de John Locke: Expansion coloniale de la philosophie européenne (2014).