Marx's old batsman bowled out

Western Primitivism - Caliban's Freedom

January 30, 1998

At a time when universalism is out of fashion, two new studies present a timely reminder of what makes it so contentious. Anthony Bogues writes of Cyril Lionel Robert James (1901-89) and his struggle for an incisive grasp of human civilisation, culminating in an assertion of "new universals" in the late 1940s. Five decades on, Aidan Campbell surveys modern-day veneration of primitive life, from teenagers with Maori tattoos to non-governmental organisations (NGOs) devoted to "appropriate technology". Whereas C. L. R. James wished to understand the world in order to change it, Campbell writes of a world today that has abandoned change and development, taking its cue from the ancient wisdom which says that small is beautiful. The gulf dividing James from modern rebels like Swampy and Muppet Dave is enormous.

James built up an impressive reputation as a cultural critic, journalist and revolutionary. Bogues presents a detailed argument for seeing him as "Caliban in search of history and purpose". Just as Shakespeare's outcast character mediated between old and new worlds, so too did James. His early intellectual life was that of a "black Victorian", immersing himself in western traditions and, less conventionally, thriving on a love of cricket and respect for the underdog. In turn, this fuelled his initial involvement in Caribbean politics, a romance with the rebellious potential of literature and a fascination with the proletarian cricketer Matthew Bondman. By the time James arrived in Britain to work as a journalist, the foundations were in place for the self-styled Renaissance man to make a genuine impact on the world. Needless to say, the political ferment of this period meant that James - Nello to his friends - was in his element.

Bogues also charts the way that James's democratic and universalist aspirations led to an engagement with Marxism, placing historical materialism at the core of the author's narrative. In the late 1940s James gradually shed parts of the Leninist political canon, replacing established Marxist categories with some of his own. This heralded his arrival at a new synthesis of dialectics, wherein "human happiness" took centrestage, allowing Bogues to assert the case for the emergence of a distinct "Jamesian political philosophy". What he means is a form of humanism informed by a commitment to black liberation.

Perhaps unwittingly, the book also lays bare some of the flaws in its hero's judgement, such as his overestimation of the revolutionary potential of the American working class and a strange insistence that the Soviet Union was in fact a capitalist state. These "insights" underpin Bogues's claims for James's originality as a political theorist.

Another key problem is how Caliban's Freedom approaches the "Negro question", as it was known in the 1930s. It is incontestable that James's distinctive presence on the American left owed much to the detailed attention he paid to the issue of race. The US left was often daring and principled in opposing segregation and discrimination, but also prone to wishful thinking and opportunism on the issue. The same can be said of James, who, unlike many of his contemporaries, sought a basis in analysis to prefigure political action around civil rights goals. This specific emphasis becomes Bogues's cue to read history backwards, by recasting his subject as the spiritual forefather of contemporary radical multiculturalism. Thus he tells us that "the universality of the Enlightenment stopped short on race. The black radical tradition offers a larger dimension to these issues," imposing postmodernist concerns on the interwar years. The biography closes in 1953, praising its subject for his innovative approach and powerful intellect, the elements of which are recapitulated through the motif of James as Caliban, western civilisation's archetypal outsider. Despite its often questionable reappropriation of James for the 1990s, Caliban's Freedom is a useful and provocative introduction to one of the 20th century's more creative and inspiring figures.

Campbell's Western Primitivism: African Ethnicity is a response to a world order where few Jamesian assumptions apply. Seldom are the categories of James's "independent Marxism" of much help today. What becomes of a theory of state capitalism without the Soviet Union? Why emphasise the self-activity of the masses against a backdrop of atomisation and anomie? Perhaps the one sustainable strand from this critique is James's bid to master the classics - Shakespeare, Melville and so forth - in the process enhancing his political objectives. However, as Campbell demonstrates, identification with western civilisation is becoming a minority pursuit these days.

Figures like James are unlikely to emerge from today's rebels - road protesters and new-age travellers who often scorn ideas of a common humanity and high culture. According to Western Primitivism: African Ethnicity, such attitudes arise from a "small is beautiful" outlook, reducing meaningful change to a question of personal tastes and consumer choice. Observing these decadent trends, Campbell explores the retreat from universal aspirations by interrogating current changes in western perceptions of Africa. He presents Africa's changing image as symptomatic of a politically correct malaise in the West, rather than a result of anything unfolding on the "dark continent". Controversially, Campbell contends that these new stereotypes for a new generation tell us more about western loss of nerve than about the "imagined communities" of harmonious village life so beloved by body-pierced radicals and NGOs.

In the past, artists and intellectuals have endowed primitivism with both patronage and respect. Thus on the one hand Rousseau romanticised the free primitive individual, and painters like Gauguin and Picasso "elevated the tribal world into the fount of human creativity, thereby serving as a source out of which the rational but decadent West could revitalise itself". On the other hand, lurid allegations of barbarism have played a role in colonisation, decolonisation and post-cold war international relations.

Derived largely from the imaginations of western commentators, modern perceptions of primitive society emphasise its virtues. Campbell labels this moral ethnicity. Sustainable, in harmony with nature, modest and wise, moral ethnicity points to primitive life and puts the case for remaking society along the lines of some (mythical) African counterpart. Thankfully, Campbell suggests that "modern primitivism is sufficiently contemporary-looking to distance itself from that vast amalgam of obsolete institutions and establishment figures irrevocably linked with the passe and the antiquated", rather than resort to cheap caricatures of mud huts in the suburbs. Modern primitivism's novelty gives moral authority to anti-development arguments and to a romantic vision of life in local communities. Likewise, whereas recent historians have assessed ethnicity's influence as largely destructive, today it is being rehabilitated, conditional on conformity with the agenda set by NGOs and fad-following opinion-makers.

Western Primitivism, like Bogues's portrait of James, considers the problematic legacy of Marxism. Rather than dispense with "ethical ethnicity" in the style of James's rivals on the left, Campbell considers historical materialism's contemporary rehabilitation, "turned into a caring, sharing support system for the victims and the oppressed of the world". Whereas for Marx, "primitive communism" denoted a stage of social development so backward that it preceded the existence of private property, today such a society is seen as comparatively virtuous. It is certainly not an adequate description of life in Africa today, nor is it a desirable state of affairs for the continent's millions of residents, despite western fads for all things indigenous. Campbell's reassertion of the case for universalism and social change makes compelling reading.

Graham Barnfield teaches at Middlesex University and Sheffield Hallam University.

Western Primitivism: African Ethnicity: A Study in Cultural Relations

Author - Aidan Campbell
ISBN - 0 304 70076 2 and 70077 0
Publisher - Cassell
Price - £40.00 and £14.00
Pages - 250

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.