Black Sansculottes and Ambitious Marionettes: Cedric J. Robinson, CLR James and the Critique of Political Leadership - Alberto Toscano

Toussaint Louverture.

Leadership can serve as a privileged prism to revisit, in this theoretical homage to the work of Cedric J. Robinson, his own encounter with C.L.R. James’s work.

by Alberto Toscano

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… the people were generally far superior to their leaders. The more I have dug into this history, the more I have found that what really mattered was below, in the obscure depths. … The chief actor is the people. To find them once more, to replace them in their role, I have been compelled to reduce to their true proportions the ambitious marionettes, of whom the people pulled the strings, and in whom, up to now, we thought we could seek and find the inner movement of history. The recognition of this, I have to confess, has struck me with astonishment. To the degree that I have entered more profoundly into this study, I have found that the party leaders, the heroes of conventional history, have foreseen nothing, that they did not take the initiative in any of the things that really mattered, and particularly of those which were the unanimous work of the people at the beginning of the revolution. Left to themselves at these decisive moments, by its pretended leaders, it worked out what was necessary to be done and did it.

– Jules Michelet

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The seats of power are very warm and very comfortable.

– C.L.R. James

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When I hear people arguing about Marxism versus the nationalist or racialist struggle, I am very confused. In England I edited the Trotskyist paper and I edited the nationalist, pro-African paper of George Padmore, and nobody quarrelled. The Trotskyists read and sold the African paper and … there were (African) nationalists who read and sold the Trotskyist paper. I moved among them, we attended each other’s meetings and there was no problem because we had the same aim in general: freedom by revolution.

- C.L.R. James

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Just as Thucydides believed that historical consciousness of a people in crisis provided the possibility of more virtuous action, more informed and rational choices, so do I.

– Cedric J. Robinson

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If we are to survive, we must take nothing which is dead and choose wisely among the dying.

– Cedric J. Robinson

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The time has passed for ever when the cause of democracy and socialism was directly tied to Europe.

– V.I. Lenin

At the end of the first chapter of The Black Jacobins, “The Property,” James retells a famous and theoretically charged biographical vignette about Toussaint L’Ouverture, which seems to inscribe the emergence of Black revolutionary leadership at the radical margins of the European Enlightenment frame. In the Abbé Raynal’s polemical compendium, Philosophical and Political History of the Establishments and Commerce of the Europeans in the Two Indies (1770), Toussaint came across the following lines, which, in James’s retelling, the Haitian revolutionary leader would repeat to himself:

Already are there established two colonies of fugitive negroes, whom treaties and power protect from assault. Those lightnings announce the thunder. A courageous chief only is wanted. Where is he, that great man whom Nature owes to her vexed, oppressed and tormented children? Where is he? He will appear, doubt it not; he will come forth and raise the sacred standard of liberty. This venerable signal will gather around him the companions of his misfortune. More impetuous than the torrents, they will everywhere leave the indelible traces of their just resentment. Everywhere people will bless the name of the hero who shall have reestablished the rights of the human race; everywhere will they raise trophies in his honour.

And James comments: “It is the tragedy of mass movements that they need and can only too rarely find adequate leadership.” Tragedy – as David C. Scott and Jeremy Matthew Glick have recently explored – is indeed the recurrent name for the historical grandeur and dramatic limits that accrue to the relationship between political leadership and mass action in the writing of James, from his parallel reconstructions of the Haitian and Bolshevik revolutions to his interventions into the debates on decolonization and Black Power in the 1960s and 1970s.

The fateful demand and fatal limits of leadership are a function of historical transitions or crises in which mass action is not synchronized, so to speak, with its material and ideological determinants, and in which leadership – though repudiated by James for “advanced” temporalities and geographies of class struggle – seems an inevitable synthesizing and empowering instrument. Whether in The Black Jacobins or four decades later in Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution, the historical, strategic and dramatic question of political leadership is also at the nexus of Marxist proletarian politics and Black liberation struggles, in ways which I hope to sketch here. It is for that reason that I think leadership can serve as a privileged prism to revisit, in this theoretical homage to the work of Cedric J. Robinson, his own encounter with James’s work, both in Black Marxism and in the 1992 essay “C.L.R. James and the World-System.” Of the figures treated by Robinson, in Black Marxism and beyond, James – whom he appositely hails as a “too rare example of a living, active, grappling Marxism” – is arguably the one for whom reflection on the theory and practice of black struggles, whether in the West Indies, the US Black Belt or across the Pan-Africanist movement, was inseparable if not indistinguishable from a profound revision of and fidelity to a Marxist and Leninist tradition.9 If, from a certain angle, the making of the Black Radical Tradition is also the unmaking of a precarious ideological amalgam called “Black Marxism,” then James’s trajectory poses perhaps the most generative challenge to Robinson’s proposition that the Tradition is a creative negation of a Western paradigm of political thought that includes Marxism, including James’s own.

In what follows, I want to begin by briefly gauging the force of Robinson’s demolition of the myth and social epistemology of political leadership in his first book, The Terms of Order: Political Science and the Myth of Leadership (1980), which, albeit in a more “archaeological” and quasi-transcendental vein than Black Marxism, sets many of the guidelines for his later work.10 In Terms, Robinson already challenges the possibility of a successful immanent overcoming of the limits of Western political thought as an ideology of domination embedded in the complex legacies of racial capitalism – casting doubts on anarchism’s capacity to challenge the nexus of authority, order and leadership while broaching, through a study of the Tonga people, the possibility of an antipolitical utopia emerging out of African traditions of collective life.

In a captivating reinterpretation of Weber’s notion of charisma, Terms also displays Robinson’s insistence on the creative power of mass resistance and the derivative nature of leadership. In Black Marxism, Black Movements in America and potent essays on Fanon, Du Bois and especially Amilcar Cabral (the one 20th century political thinker who stands as a kind of revolutionary model in Robinson in the early 1980s) this critique of political leadership is enhanced by a powerful class critique, which connects the problem of political leadership to that of the contradictions besetting the petty bourgeoisie and the formation of that black intelligentsia to which James himself belonged. From this vantage point, James’s tragic portrait of Toussaint is a self-portrait in disguise. Instead of evaluating Robinson’s theoretical and biographical diagnosis of the tensions traversing C.L.R. James’s encounters with the Black Radical Tradition, I want to touch on the striking convergence between many of the themes of Robinson’s work and James’s own attempts at self-criticism or self-revision in his lessons on the Black Jacobins from 1971, as well as their resonance with James’s revisiting of the leader-masses problematic in his critical history of the Ghana revolution. It is at this point of closest affinity that we can also see where Robinson’s understanding of the Black Radical Tradition and James’s “Black Marxism” maintain their political and theoretical distinctions, which we could summarize as a difference between the political autonomy of revolutionary black struggles and the metaphysical autonomy of an antipolitical tradition of resistance.

Presaged by a 1971 article on the place of charisma in the political thought of Malcolm X, Cedric Robinson’s first book is a dense, intricate and intransigent destruction of what the subtitle of the book (a revised version of his doctoral dissertation)13 captures as the political myth that structures Western political science. Though Robinson musters an impressive arsenal to, in his words, “abuse the political consciousness” of the West (in ways, incidentally, not reducible to the welter of contemporary decolonial and postcolonial perspectives, and even less to speculative “Afro-pessimist” invocations of blackness), the underlying claim is stark: Western political thought and political science is based on two fallacies: that leadership is necessary for order and that hierarchy can be rationally legitimated. As he observes: “The presumption that political leadership is a concept through which the event of social organization can be made recognizable is a specious one. Yet it is this same presumption which underlies both liberal and radical attempts at social reorganization and ‘perfection.’” But the illusion of the political remains bafflingly unshaken by a historical record which amply proves that politically consolidated and enforced authority is not a source of social stability and order, puncturing the illusion of leadership as the “solvent-object” of that “problem-object” that is the periodic crisis of stability (surely a statement that needs little proof in early 2017).

“The literatures of sociology, political science, history and social psychology stridently substantiate through the plethora of analytical instruments, the metaphysics of leadership.” In Robinson’s bitingly florid turn of phrase: “It is, indeed, difficult to escape the mischievous tyranny of a mind which cannot only declare but also sculpture the physique of its error into reality.” In the Western political paradigm this error-become-reality imposes leadership as the instrument to represent and relate the objective reality of order and authority, overcoding them with a political metaphysic spawned by a mixed paradigm that combines the parameters of geometric order with the urgency of salvational narratives, and which presents the leader as “an instrument of rational action where rational action is understood as collective action which extends the survival of a community,“ and where the “illusion of pure decision [subsidizes] the belief in the select nature of the decision-maker.”

The political heart of The Terms of Order is to be found in the nuanced juxtaposition of the immanent critique of this political paradigm within the European anarchist tradition and the alternative to leadership deposited in the ethnography of antipolitical societies. This critique of anarchism is a template of sorts for Robinson’s demarcation of Marxism’s limits, and deserving of greater interrogation, but for the purposes of this essay I want to home in on his recasting of the Weberian concept of charisma. The latter serves as a kind of hinge in Terms: it is the blindspot of a political science obliged to make recourse to irrational derivations of instrumental political authority which it constitutively disavows and it represents an opening for rethinking leadership not as that which authoritatively orders a mass into socially stable and obedient people, but springing forth from mass movements in a manner that cannot be contained by order or authority. Leadership derives from movement, not vice versa. Pulling at the contradictions inherent in Weber’s view of charisma as the “specifically creative revolutionary force of history,“ Robinson instructs us that: “It is, in truth, the charismatic figure who has been selected by social circumstances, psychodynamic peculiarities, and tradition, and not his followers by him.” The phenomenon of charisma is a kind of residue or indivisible remainder which a rationalist political science cannot metabolize, and must both presuppose and treat as pathological. Outside of the mixed paradigm of Western political science, charisma draws its authority from beyond the leader, and the charismatic leader is himself a “charismaticized follower” of his followers. Thus, the historically dominant image of political authority is “the perversion of charisma” and “the alienation of the mass authority of charisma,” with the latter understood as “a psychosocial force constructed by a people who have undergone an extended period of traumatizing stress.”

Almost two decades after Terms, Robinson would reiterate this figuration of charisma to situate Martin Luther King (and Malcolm X) in the Black liberationist politics that found their taproot not in the experience of free Blacks in the North, as was the case for an accommodationist elite racial politics, but in slave resistance: “King’s charismatic authority was tributary of the Afro-Christian tradition embedded in the consciousness of the now mostly urban Blacks in the South and elsewhere. … In this performance, he was less a person than a social and historical identity.” This is in contrast with those “representative colored men” who Robinson considers largely irrelevant to black masses constructing their alternative forms of communal life. The “charismatic phenomenon,” instead, remains in Robinson’s estimation “the only instrument of survival and liberation organic, that is, authentic, to the circumstance, tradition, and psychic nature of the bulk of human beings living in oppression,” with the leader a “finely tuned” instrument, sensitive to the suffering and aspirations of the masses who have charismaticized him in a conjuncture of crisis. As Erica R. Edwards (who also penned the introduction to The Terms of Order) notes in her Charisma and the Fiction of Black Leadership, an incisive cultural critique of the gendered logic of black leadership as both reality and myth: “One of the founding problematics of black political modernity is [the] double potential of the charismatic leadership role: to discipline, on the one hand, and to disrupt, precisely by way of charismatic performance, the disciplinary machinations of the capitalist order on the other.”

Now, though James was himself wary of the notion of charisma, or indeed the language of psychology (though he also corrected himself on this in the 1971 lectures on the Black Jacobins), the recognition that leadership draws its dynamism (and limits) from mass movements, not vice versa, and that it is a function of crisis (and more, particularly, of revolutionary transition), is deeply Jamesian. It is striking in this respect that Robinson chooses to present James’s analysis of Toussaint’s hamartia or tragic flaw, as the implicit recognition of the limits of the very class perspective, that of a diasporic black intelligentsia, which had also allowed James, along with Du Bois and Padmore, but also Cabral and Fanon, to make the theoretical leap from the Western political paradigm to the Black Radical Tradition. Commenting on what James suggestively referred to as Toussaint’s “failure of enlightenment,” the combination of an authoritarian project of state modernization with deafness to the demands of the very black laborers that had made him leader – “to bewilder the masses is to strike the deadliest of all blows at the revolution,” James declared – Robinson displays his clinical insight:

We, of course, recognize James (and perhaps even his impressions of Padmore) in these assertions. We can see the declared identification of a Black revolutionary intelligentsia with the masses; the willingness to continue the submission to “scientific socialism” by denying the material force of ideology while indicating a bitter disappointment with the Communist movement; the patronizing attitude toward the organic leaders of the masses; and the ambivalent pride of place presumed for the Westernized ideologue. Moreover, it is clear that James was looking critically at his own class. Unlike his confederates, he was compelled to face up to the boundaries beyond which the revolutionary petit bourgeoisie could not be trusted. For that reason he was to insist often that the revolutionary masses must preserve to themselves the direction of the revolutionary movement, never deferring to professional revolutionists, parties, or the intelligentsia.

Robinson further excavates how in Notes on Dialectics and associated writings from the Johnson-Forrest Tendency and its successors, James had supplemented his tracing of the historical logic of the class struggle between proletariat and bourgeoisie with an attention to the transformation of the petit bourgeoisie. Recognizing this transformation was necessary “because this strata had presumed the leadership of the proletarian movement and then betrayed it.” James’s anti-vanguardist axiom – “There is nothing more to organize” – was also to be read as the product of this vital self-criticism of the petit bourgeoisie, in other words as a class analysis of the composition and orientation of revolutionary leadership. That this was an abiding concern of James, especially as concerned the question of Black and Pan-African leadership, is eloquently testified by his reflections on the need to trust in the masses against the collusions and prevarications of petit-bourgeois leaders. Drawing on George Lamming’s Season of Adventure, James muses:

I don’t know anywhere, where any intellectual, any member of the intellectual élite, has taken upon himself complete responsibility for what has happened to the people he has left behind him. The people will make their way. We who have had the advantages must recognise our responsibility … there are not many intellectuals who realise what they are doing and the social crimes they commit, who say: “I won a scholarship, I joined the élite and left my people behind, and I feel that that action on my part is responsible for what is happening to them.”

In Robinson’s own work, the sharpest political lessons to be drawn about the ambiguous but critical situation of the black petit-bourgeois intelligentsia – “mediators between Black workers and the social tapestry woven by capitalist-determined forms of production” as he writes in Black Marxism – is to be found in his article “Amilcar Cabral and the Dialectic of Portuguese Colonialism,” published in the journal Radical America in 1981. There, Robinson identifies the brilliance of Cabral’s anticolonial leadership in his capacity deftly to anatomize the contradictions of colonized society, and namely the problem of the revolutionary petit bourgeoisie. Cabral’s theory and practice is grounded in the recognition of a revolutionary situation in which all the traditional class actors in the of European revolutions were stunted or absent: no industrial proletariat, no developed bourgeoisie, not even a mass peasantry. Rather, it was the transfiguration of the petit bourgeoisie on which the revolutionary impetus depended. As Cabral declared in La Havana in 1966: “The revolutionary petty bourgeoisie must be capable of committing suicide as a class in order to be reborn as revolutionary workers, completely identified with the deepest aspirations of the people to which they belong.”29 A creative adaptation of the received class schema of revolutionary politics (a “stretching” we could say, paraphrasing Fanon) was demanded by the conditions of Guinea and Cabo Verde, a transformative nexus between petty-bourgeoisie and the people.

In Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution, C.L.R. James would foreground this very problem, both fully recognizing the contribution of ordinary Africans to the emergence of anticolonial emancipation (most prominently Ghanaian “market-women”), and portraying personal political leadership, much as he had done in The Black Jacobins, as a necessity in the context of a “backward” society. Contrary to Robinson, and even to the latter’s interpretation of James’s affinity with Oliver C. Cox and the latter’s break with the linear historical logic of Marxist class struggle, and notwithstanding his own recognition of the critical contribution of ordinary Africans and their traditional political institutions to the liberation struggle, James does appear to present the advanced/backward distinction as crucial to the centrality of leadership to anticolonial politics, by contrast with class politics in advanced capitalist countries. This distinction is also essential to the “tragedy” of leadership, with Nkrumah seeming to repeat, in a different guise, the mistakes of Toussaint, losing his sense for the masses whilst entangled in the apparent necessities of modernization.

It is particularly striking that here, as in his key texts on the autonomy of Black struggles in the United States, James turns, in a kind of heterodox dogmatism, to the authority of Lenin, returning to the very passages on the vitality and relative independence of non-proletarian struggles, including petit-bourgeois and peasant struggles (especially Lenin’s writing on Ireland), to ground the Marxist credentials of a revolutionary politics that does not have the proletariat as its exclusive (or in the case of Pan-African struggles, even its strategically key) subject. Thus, just as in the 1940s James would underscore Lenin’s observations in the Second Congress of the Communist International on the “motley” character of struggles in which different non-proletarian groups and classes play an indispensable role to shore up his arguments for the autonomy of Black struggles, so in reflecting on the impasses of Nkrumah’s Ghana in the sixties, he would interpret Lenin’s late writings on the administration of the state as a radical recognition of the marginality of the classically-conceived proletariat to the politics of “backward” countries, whether in the USSR or Ghana.31 (It is worthy of note, in terms of Robinson’s emphasis on C.L.R. James’s auto-critique of the revolutionary petty-bourgeois intelligentsia, that James proposes that one can model the independence of “racial” and national-minority struggles on that of non-revolutionary classes.)

Parenthetically, we can note that while personal leadership is side-lined in James’s writings on Marxist organizing and the “Negro Question” of the 1940s, the question of leadership is shifted to the complex question of the leadership of the proletariat as a class – a class about which we can say that the more it leads the less it requires either leaders or a vanguard detachment. In James’s estimation, as stated with polemical lucidity in “Key Problems in the Study of Negro History” (1950), among the ideological crimes of Stalinism was the lip service played to mass action, sugar-coating an authoritarian conception of leadership and traducing the reality that true leaders were “men whose every step is conditioned by the recognition that they represent the deepest instincts and desires of the mass.”

From Black Jacobins to Nkrumah and the writings on Black Power, C.L.R. James would continue to maintain a shifting balance between spontaneous mass struggles for self-emancipation and the (perhaps tragic) role of personal leadership. Prolonging the method of dialectic biography first broached in his study of the West Indian labor leader Captain Cipriani and masterfully developed in his study of the revolutionary sequence in Saint Domingue/Haiti, C.L.R. James would orbit around the question of black leadership, not just in African or West-Indian context (where the diverse figures of Marcus Garvey, Padmore, Fanon, Nyerere and others recur) but in the US too, as his extremely positive portraits of Stokely Carmichael and George Jackson33 testify (though it is interesting to note the provocation, so antithetical to Robinson’s take on black movements, to foreground the figure of Lincoln34). But in the 1960s and 1970s, his abiding concern with the autonomy of mass popular struggles, and the distinction between class leadership and personal authority, would issue in treatments of black struggles that not only move closer to Robinson’s abiding emphasis on the “capacities for resistance of ordinary black people,”35 as embedded in autonomous traditions of resistance, but largely undermine the very recourse to the phenomenon of charisma.

In “Black Sansculottes,” a short piece written in 1964 for the Newsletter of the Institute of Race Relations, a year after the second edition of Black Jacobins, James homes in on Toussaint’s tragic error, whereby recourse to French culture and capital meant sapping “the newly-created energies of his own followers.”36 Displaying that deep instinct for historical analogy which he shares with Trotsky, and which allowed him to present a history of the Haitian revolution both modelled on and foreshadowing the Bolshevik one as a crucial object lesson for the Pan-African movement – all in turn read through the prism of the radical historiography of the French revolution – James declares: “the dilemma of Toussaint was an elemental and primitive form of the dilemma which faces all newly-independent backward territories today.” In particular, it is from the preface of Jules Michelet’s multi-volume history of the French revolution, and in its further articulation by Georges Lefebvre, that James would draw a key lesson for the critique of revolutionary leadership, namely that attention should be dislocated from the spectacular feats of the manifest leaders, Michelet’s “ambitious marionettes,” and redirected to the agency of the popular masses and to what Lefebvre called their “obscure leaders.”

While James did not relent on the notion that great men do make history (though not under conditions of their own choosing and on the sufferance of mass movement and feeling), the “entry of the chorus” is crucial to his self-critical reflections on Black Jacobins, as signaled by the repetition of Michelet-Lefebvre’s admonition to attend to obscure leaders, enhanced here by a recognition of the relative superiority of Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction over the Black Jacobins in attending to the role of Black culture and religious consciousness in the political psychology of resistance, as well as in the treatment of the “leaderless” phenomenon of the general strike against the plantocracy. What’s more, recognizing the critical role that African political culture and marronage had in the formation of slave resistance, James emphasizes how, in rewriting The Black Jacobins, he would have reconstructed the voices of the slaves in revolt, not just the record of their actions as sedimented in metropolitan archives: “I don’t want today to be writing and say that’s what they said about how we were being treated. Not any longer, no. I would want to say what we had to say about how we were treated, and I know that that information exists in all the material. … We have had enough of what they have said about us even when sympathetic” (we may note that Carolyn Fick’s superb The Making of Haiti, which makes considerable thematic use of the notion of the “obscure leader” comes very close indeed to James’s imagined rewrite).

The significance of Michelet’s praise of the obscure leaders and the people to James’s shifting thought on the complex problem of revolutionary leadership is evident in its critical role in the pivotal chapter of Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution on “The People and the Leader,” where James also takes the opportunity to chide Trotsky for misunderstanding and over-emphasizing the “very difficult question, the relationship of the leader to the mass movement in a revolution” in his History of the Russian Revolution, one of the key templates for The Black Jacobins.38 Though it may be argued that James remains too captivated by the vicissitudes of the great male leader, his decolonizing critique of the petit-bourgeois intelligentsia and attention to the obscure leadership and self-activity of the masses is a rich avenue beyond the repetitions, be they tragic or farcical, of the mass-leader dialectic. And while never crystallizing into the idea of a distinct Black Radical Tradition that would constitute a distinct and “total” theory of liberation, founded on a “single historical identity,” nor making the clean break with the Marxian dialectic that Robinson glimpses in Mariners, with its pathological figures of totalitarian leadership (Ahab) and petit-bourgeois intellectual complicity (Ishmael), James’s writing on Black revolutionary mass politics resonates in illuminating ways with Robinson’s abiding and multi-faceted attention to the “capacities for resistance of ordinary black people” and his vigilance against the trap of leadership as nexus of socio-political authority and metaphysical fetish of order. But it does so while bypassing the phenomenon of charisma, one that for James is not, or no longer, indispensable for channeling the energies of popular struggles.40 If there is nothing more to organize, perhaps there is also no one to follow.

A version of this paper was originally delivered at the 2016 Historical Materialism conference in London, as part of a double session on “The Black Radical Tradition: The Legacy of Cedric Robinson.”

This paper was first published by Viewpoint Magazine.