From C. L. R. James’s anti-colonialism to the relevance of Dr. Seuss, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
In her contribution to the 1992 edited volume C.L.R. James’s Caribbean, the Jamaican literary scholar Sylvia Wynter coined the term “Jamesian poiesis” to explain how C.L.R. James worked through the multiple contradictions that marked his intellectual and political lives. James was “attached to the cause of the proletariat, yet a member of the middle class, a Marxian yet a Puritan,…of African descent yet Western, a Trotskyist and Pan-Africanist.” This set of apparently incompatible cultural and political orientations led James to eschew “either/or” frames of analysis or modes of political action (race, class, “Pan-African nationalism or labour internationalism”) in favour of a “counterdoctrine” in which “multiple modes of domination” are “nondogmatically integrated” in a way that challenges both “the basic categories of colonial liberalism” and the “labour-centric categories of orthodox Marxism.”1
As a scholar, C.L.R. James made critical contributions to Pan-African, anti-racist, anti-colonialist and Marxist thought, and his writing on cricket was an important precursor to the development of the discipline of cultural studies. As an activist, he was a central figure in labour and Pan-African movements from the interwar years through the Black Power era. As Wynter argues, James was an “exceedingly complex and subtle thinker” whose work defies easy categorization and challenges scholars to—at the risk of repeating a well-worn cliche—go “beyond boundaries” in order to grasp its intellectual richness. In his 2014 book C.L.R. James in Imperial Britain, Christian Høgsbjerg traces how, in six years living in Great Britain (1932-1938), the Trinidadian novelist, historian, cricket writer, political philosopher and activist transformed himself—from an aspiring writer whose analysis of the relationship between the colonial West Indies and the metropole focused on advocating for Dominion status for the islands—into one of the leading lights of twentieth-century political radicalism in both Marxist and Pan-African traditions. [continue reading]
The New Yorker magazine recently published a piece, titled “The political fight against polio”. This article, reviewing current challenges in polio eradication in Nigeria and conflict ridden areas in general, argues that the polio prevention “plot [got] messy” and has become at least as much of a political, as an epidemiological issue because of its geography. But has polio ever been anything but political? And has it always been a fight?
Polio is a relatively new disease. It started to appear in epidemic waves in the late 19th and early 20th century, and by the 1950s it became a global issue. By then, the epidemic waves became more and more severe and vaccine development saw funding and international cooperation as never before. The stakes were high: this disease spared no-one, it affected rich and poor all the same. Most importantly, polio was (and is) primarily a childhood disease, hence its older name, infant paralysis – a name that is still the official term used in a number of languages. It’s a disease that can cause permanent paralysis, most often in the limbs and occasionally in the respiratory muscles. [continue reading]
Thousands of Cubans participated in the March of the Torches on Saturday, an annual procession that pays homage to national hero Jose Marti on his birthday. Marti was a poet, essayist, novelist, and later in his life, a soldier. This year’s march, commemorating the 164th anniversary of his birth, also paid tribute to Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro. It was the first of its kind held since Fidel’s death last November.
Although Marti and Castro lived decades apart, both leaders defended their homeland from the same system they fought against until their deaths. Fidel is widely known for standing up to United States imperialism. But Marti, too, stood up to imperialists who wanted to extend their country’s economic, political, and military influence over the Caribbean island. [continue reading]
For every American president, the challenge of foreign policy boils down to a single word: intervention. Where, when and how should the United States intervene in the affairs of other countries? Do we more effectively shape the world by setting out to redeem and pacify it, or by tending to our own affairs and allowing other countries to work out their own destinies?
Past presidents had to face these questions as they decided whether to intervene in countries from Cuba to Vietnam to Iraq. President Trump must decide how aggressively he will intervene to shape events in the Middle East, Central Europe and East Asia. Members of Congress will try to push him in various directions. But although these debates will be intense, no argument on either side will be new. For more than a century, every debate over foreign intervention has been repetition. All are pale shadows of the first one. [continue reading]
Of all the significant cultural figures finding new relevance during a turbulent news cycle, one of the more intriguing is Dr. Seuss. The German American cartoonist and author, born Theodor Seuss Geisel, is best known for his children’s books, The Cat in the Hat, The Lorax, and Horton Hears a Who among them. But for two years starting in 1941, Geisel worked as a political cartoonist for the liberal New York newspaper PM, crafting more than 400 cartoons on the subject of World War Two. One of these in particular, a drawing lampooning the non-Interventionist America First movement, has been reemerging recently amid protests against President Trump’s executive order barring immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries.
The cartoon, which mocks an apparent blithe naiveté about the dangers posed by Nazi Germany, as well as a callousness regarding the lives of children who aren’t American citizens, makes it a striking accompaniment to modern protests, not least of which is that Trump has named one of his own official platforms “America First.” [continue reading]