Every Cook Can Govern: an Introduction to C.L.R. James
C.L.R. James’s life expresses the tensions between the center and the periphery of the modern capitalist world. He wrote on everything from philosophy to the Haitian Revolution, music to sports, radical politics to literary criticism, constantly revealing the surprising and often ignored interconnections of the world system. Initially moving from Trinidad (the colony) to Britain (the metropole), James developed a sharp and nuanced critique of empire, underscoring the roles of culture and of those holding positions within colonial society itself in shaping the broader political economy of colonialism. Inspired by a series of remarkable world events in the interwar period and the militancy of working people, James would increasingly emphasize the radicalism of ordinary men and women and the political possibilities ignored by many European Marxists. Adopting a global view, thanks in part to his political activity in Europe, the Americas, the Caribbean, and Africa, James wrote a series of works that, uniquely in Marxist historiography, positioned Black and colonial peoples as a decisive force in shaping—and transforming—modern capitalism. His enormous body of work reflects his extraordinarily broad and detailed knowledge of European civilization, art, history, literature, music, and even sport (cricket particularly), as well as of the preserved traditions of formerly enslaved peoples and cultures throughout the developing world. Throughout, James navigates the ties and frictions between Western and non-Western thought and political practice, both embracing and contesting “classic” frameworks of analyses. How can James’s extraordinary life, work, and personal transformations help us think through lasting dilemmas of race, class, capitalism, and the conditions for emancipation?
This course is an introduction to the pioneering work of C.L.R. James. We’ll start with a serious examination of his classic The Black Jacobins, a pioneering analysis of the Haitian Revolution. From there, we’ll track the development of the themes raised in The Black Jacobins through subsequent stages of James’s intellectual career and political activism, in particular his time in the United States in the 1940s and early 1950s and his close involvement with the Pan-African movement through the mid-1950s and 1960s. Throughout, we will ask: What is the meaning of the Haitian Revolution to James’s theoretical system? What is the relationship between leaders or the vanguard and the masses through the course of the revolution? What is the connection between struggles situated at the periphery of the capitalist system and those located in the center? What is the relationship between thought and the dynamics of history? How does James frame the constant movement between particular and universal, and what is its importance in the quest for freedom? What is the so-called theory of state capitalism, and what does it tell us about revolutionary struggle and, in particular, Black revolutionary struggle? How does James analyze class, and how does it relate to race, especially in assessing segments such as the Black petit bourgeoisie or middle class? In addition to The Black Jacobins, students will read from James’s other books and anthologies, such as State Capitalism and World Revolution and Modern Politics, as well as his essays on democracy (“Every Cook Can Govern”), dialectics and history, the struggle of Black workers in the US, colonialism, national liberation, and culture. Supplementary reading will include works by Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, W.E.B. DuBois, Eric Williams, Raya Dunayevskaya, Cedric Robinson, Susan Buck-Morss, Christian Hogsbjerg, Robin D.G. Kelley, and Anna Grimshaw, among others.
Course ScheduleWednesday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
July 13 — August 03, 2022