CLR James is one of those towering figures of the twentieth century who 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 the intellectual depth, cultural breadth or sheer political contrariness of Cyril Lionel Robert James. He was a lifelong Marxist, yet one with an uncommonly fierce independence of mind that expressed itself both in his rejection of conventional Marxist arguments and in his refusal to repent of his politics even when it became fashionable to do so. He was an icon of black liberation struggles, and yet someone whose politics was steeped in a love of Western literature and Western civilization. He was a man whose affection for cricket was matched only by his love for Shakespeare. Above all, James was a humanist who never lost his faith in the transformative power of collective human action.
The Black Jacobins, the story of the Haitian Revolution and of its tragically flawed leader Toussaint L’Ouverture, is James’ masterpiece. An extraordinary synthesis of novelistic narrative and factual reconstruction (James 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), it is a book that helped transform both the writing of history and history itself. Three decades before historians such as Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm and EP Thompson began producing ‘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. And in telling that story, he 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.
- Kenan Malik, Review of The Black Jacobins (17 August 2010)