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The CLR James Journal

Volume 26, Issue 1/2, 2020

William Clare Roberts
Pages 219-240

Centralism is a Dangerous Tool
Leadership in C.L.R. James’s History of Principles

This essay seeks to bring into focus the latent political theory of CLR James’s World Revolution, 1917-1936, and to show, on this basis, how World Revolution explains certain difficult aspects of The Black Jacobins. The core of James’s theory is the thesis that social classes are organically and internally identified, and that each has a preformed and unitary interest, which can be articulated as a set of political principles. A class is called to act by the voice that expresses the class’s interest in the terms of its political principles. Once these points are made clear, several problems regarding the interpretation of The Black Jacobins disappear. First, James’s claim that the slaves of San Domingo were “closer to a modern proletariat than any group of workers in existence at the time” follows from his organic concept of the proletariat. Second, James’s revision of his account of the Haitian Revolution over the decades does not signify a move in the direction of “history from below” but a changed estimation of the conditions under which the mirroring operation he assigned to political leadership might take place. What seems to be James’s inordinate interest in the individual leader, finally, is more properly understood to be his antipathy to institutions and organizations.