C.L.R. James–1901-1989

Kent Worcester

C.L.R. JAMES died May 31 at the age of 88 of a chest infection in his Brixton, London, home. A child of the Enlightenment, “Nello” (short for Lionel) stands as one of the most engaging and clever personalities of the socialist camp. James may be described variously as a radical historian, Leninist party builder, and old-fashioned literary critic; as author of The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (1938), Marine’s, Renegades and Castaways: Herman Melville and the World We Live In (1953), and Beyond a Boundary (1963); and as a theorist of popular emancipation in the overlapping realms of culture and politics.

In the area of politics James should be remembered for his significant essays on the movement for West Indian self-government (1933); on the autonomous struggles of Black Americans (1945 and 1948); on the meaning of democracy in Ancient Greece (1956); and on the Atlantic slave trade (1970), as well as for the many books and documents written with political collaborators in the 1940s and 1950s. These include Invading Socialist Society’ (1947), State Capitalism and World Revolution (1950), and Facing Reality (1958).

These works set forth an unabashedly revolutionary agenda of democratic working-class rebellion in both the Eastern and Western power blocs. And as Paul Buhie writes in his recent biography, C.L.R. James: The Artist as Revolutionary, ”James would seem to prefigure, in the paths he has taken, the personal range and the integration that the vision of a better society holds out to us all.”

Literature, Sports and Politics

Born in colonial Trinidad at the dawn of the 20th century, Cyril Lionel Robert James came to radical politics via Matthew Arnold and William Shakespeare. Fascinated by the game of cricket and by the high ideals it represented, he found a job as a sports correspondent for the Manchester Guardian in the early 1930s. His independent life as a journalist allowed him time to propound the causes of Pan-Africanism (he co-founded the International African Service Bureau with George Padmore) and Trotskyism (he edited Fight and coordinated entry work inside the Independent Labour Party).

The atmosphere in 1930s London seems to have been conducive to productive activity, since he found time to write and direct a play, research the history of slave revolts in the Caribbean and Africa, draft many articles and manifestos, and complete a critical study of Soviet foreign policy, World Revolution 1917 to 1936 (1937). During a working vacation in Paris, he met Boris Souvarine and translated Souvarine’s famous biography, Stalin (1939).

At the request of Leon Trotsky, who wanted to shake up a nearly all-white Socialist Workers Party, James moved to New York in 1938. The cosmopolitan United States made a profound impression on him. An avid consumer of Hollywood movies, jazz and comic strips, he found signs of a coming revolutionary surge among Missouri sharecroppers, Detroit autoworkers, and Harlem churchgoers. “For this one moment,” Buhle writes, compressing fifteen years of James’ life, “he attained the multiplication factor of enduring radical comradeship at very center of advanced capitalism.”

Only FBI harassment and subsequent expulsion by the immigration authorities forced James to leave his adopted home. “After 1953, C.L.R. didn’t have the challenge of the United States, which never failed to excite him,” some of his followers later wrote. When he was allowed back into the United States at the end of the 1960s, he was a London-based elder of the West Indies, respected but not completely understood by American Black Power activists and campus radicals.

Rediscovering James

In recent years, James became one of the living hems of modern Black history, a member of the generation that produced Paul Robeson and Richard Wright Writing in the Village Voice, Thulani Davis remembered him as “one of the grand old men who saw the kinship among our movements, from West Indian self-government to the Harlem Re naissance, to Negritude, to African independence, to Pan-Africanism. Each nurtured the others, cross-pollinating, and in so doing affected millions of people living under colonialism and apartheid.”

As they encountered Black Jacobins, Nkrnumah and the Ghana Revolution (1971) and the re-issued A History of Pan-African Revolt (1969, first published in 1934 as A History of Negro Revolt), third-generation radical Black nationalists claimed James as one of their own.

If James was a godfather to Black Pride, however, he was also a paid-up member of the Friends of Western Civilization. As one scholar of the Caribbean once nervously pointed out, “for the Trinidadian Marxist it is possible to demand revolution, while at the same time write panegyrics on the game of cricket!”

Steeped from birth in the lore and literature of 19th century England and the philosophy of 18th century France, James neither ignored the “race question” nor allowed it to define his interests. These he cultivated in the style of a “man of letters,’ rather than as a prophet of the people.

James, I think, would have taken pleasure in the respectful obituary that appeared in the New York Times. Selma Weinstein James, co-founder of Wages for Housework and James’ third wife, was quoted as saying that “his great contribution was to break away from the very narrow and white male concept of what Marxist politics was.”

Rightly emphasizing his quasi-Hegelian style of thought, she further suggested that “he saw the world, liters-hue, sports, politics and music as one totality, and saw political life as embodying all of those.’ James was enthralled by the spectacle of history, by the possibilities inherent in those dramatic whirlwinds that occasionally interrupt the routines of everyday life.

Revolutionary Activist

Whereas the Times obituary kept an open mind, the London Times of Rupert Murdoch had the honesty to admit that it was skeptical: “It can hardly be said that in practical politics James was greatly successful… His Trotskyite stance did not attract… [Caribbean intellectuals] and no ‘C.L.R. James tendency’ was to establish itself there.”

But if we admit that the world of the “practical” is a lot broader (and generally more interesting) than the affairs of the state, it becomes dear that James always kept at least one foot in this world. Among other things, he worked with and inspired early Pan-African organizations seeking self-government in the West Indies and in Africa played a key role in the development of Trinidad’s People’s National Movement in the late 1950s; carved out a space for the intellectual in Caribbean society; and rallied the forces of anti-Stalinism in Britain and the United States at a time when Norman Podhorelz was just a twinkle in someone’s eye.

In addition, he trained several generations of Black and white activists in his own critical Marxism, which combines a heavy emphasis on the relations of production and the life-world of the blue-collar worker with an intense, quasi-spiritual thirst for deep philosophical understanding.

It may still be too early to judge James’ overall impact on Caribbean politics, or indeed on the development of the international left At the very least, new generations of radicals will certainly find inspiration in many of his books and articles on East Caribbean, African-American, and popular-democratic politics. His name may also come to be associated with the type of spontaneous, mass mobilizations we’ve seen erupt in Poland in 1980-81 and in China more recently.

As he told Jim Murray of Cultural Correspondence in 1983:

“I don’t argue with people any more about Socialism and Marxism. I say: there is Solidarity, the working class and the farmers, united in making a new society. Now you tell me what else Socialism is. I don’t have to prove the existence often million members. I am saying the same as Walesa, who is not an extraordinary figure like a Mars or a Lenin, but a worker himself….Polish Solidarity has abolished the contradiction between politics and power, or between the factory and the community.”

James’ Literary Legacy

There is a justifiable tendency to emphasize James’ contributions to Black politics, and James himself always insisted on his significance as an interpreter of Hegel, Marx, and Lenin. However, there is an alternative way of situating this deeply committed but iconoclastic thinker: as a gifted generalist, an engaged student of society and culture who may ultimately prove more interesting as a (Marxian) critic or intellectual than as a movement strategist or philosopher of history. The boundaries between these categories are far from airtight, of course.

What did James do best? Perhaps the answer is that he was singularly talented at a particular kind of writing, one that invariably raised the classical questions of politics and society, but which also described individual human personalities and existential dilemmas.

The Black Jacobins combines a historical materialist mapping with a sympathetic portrait of one man, Toussaint L’Ouverture. Mariners, Renegades and Castaways offers a revisionist analysis of Melville’s Moby Dick and of the all-American types Melville understood. And the autobiographical Beyond a Boundary poses an odd question: “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?”

The central theme of The Black Jacobins is the centrality of the slaves’ purposive action in destroying slavery at the end of the 18th century in the French colony of San Domingo (modem-day Haiti). Its author sought to show how West Indian slavery was abolished not by humanitarian gestures or legislative decrees, but primarily by the activities of the slaves themselves.

Another key theme is the interaction that emerges between the armies of San Domingo, led by the gifted Toussaint L’Ouverture, and Jacobin forces in France. Toussaint came to depend on the political and moral inspiration of the French Revolution, in a way that blinded him to its degeneration under the military hero Napoleon Bonaparte.

Opportunities inherent in the dynamic of permanent revolution (with radical democratic struggles in the periphery help ignite conflagrations in the metropolis) came to naught in this historical epoch as Thermidor. France joined its imperialist neighbors, Britain and Spain, in banishing the new nation of Haiti from the circuits of international trade and finance. Toussaint died of fatigue in a French prison in April 1803, and independent Haiti continues to suffer from an externally imposed isolation.

The Black Jacobins opens with the sort of rhetorical bite that is missing in modem American letters:

“Christopher Columbus landed first in the New World at the island of San Salvador, and after praising God enquired urgently for gold. The natives, Red Indians, were peaceable and friendly and directed him to Haiti, a large island (nearly as large as Ireland), rich, they said, in the yellow metal. He sailed to Haiti. One of his ships being wrecked, the Haitian Indiana helped him so willingly that very little was lost and of the articles which they brought on shore not one was stolen.”

From the outset, then, every fact became part of the story.

Mariners, Renegades and Castaways was produced under very different circumstances than these of belles lettres London during the Great Depression. But it too concerns sharp conflicts between intense personalities under dramatic conditions. In November 1952 James was arrested and interned on Ellis Island on charges of passport irregularities. He remained on the island for six months as he applied for, and was eventually refused, U.S. citizenship.

While he waited, he was placed in a small cell with five Communist Party members who recognized the Black anti-Stalinist. James wrote:

“For a day or two the Communists were somewhat uncertain as to what should be their attitude to me….I could see them whispering and consulting together. Finally, however, they seemed to come to the conclusion that they would treat me as a fellow prisoner. And this they did with the thoroughness and scrupulousness which characterizes them in any line that they are for the moment following.”

On Ellis Island he penned Mariners, Renegades and Castaways as a tribute to the grandeur of the American people, and as an appeal for citizenship. It uses Melville’s work to dissect the central themes and schisms of American life.

Moby Dick, it appears, is about more than simply the terrible beauty of life on a whaling ship. Melville was actually writing, James argues, about the awful consequences that result when sophisticated populations are bullied by tyrants.

Ahab embodies the “rational” bureaucrat who seeks to dominate man and nature. The creation of Ahab is, for James, a path-breaking event He is an original character of a modem type.

Ahab’s officers, Starbuck, Stubb and Flask, are ineffectual before the totalitarian personality. Trained to obey, they are unable to function outside of the bureaucratic norm. The crew, on the other hand, are aboard to perform real tasks and explore the open sea. Ishmael, the story’s voice, is an intermediate character. Always dreaming, he is unable to fit in. With its crew of thirty, Ahab’s ship brings together a gamut of New World actors.

Mariners, Renegades and Castaways is haunted by Ahab’s obsessive war against nature. One of the book’s many fine pas sages warns the reader about what this war signifies:

“Nature is not a background to men’s activity or something to be conquered and used. It is part of man, at every turn physically, intellectually, and emotionally, and man is a part of it. And if man does not integrate his daily life with his natural surroundings and his technical achievements, they will turn on him and destroy him.”

James issued his U.S. audience a challenge: reformulate and overhaul America’s relationship to the world and its peoples. From the pen of an obscure Ellis Island subversive came a curiously patriotic but terribly angry cry. His supporters distributed 8,000 copies to elected national and state officials, scientists, professors, and other public figures. Only a handful of individuals, however (among them Lionel Trilling and Norman Mailer), were prepared to defend James’ good name in court.

Cricket and the World

Two great books are always more than enough But James managed to finish the redoubtable Beyond a Boundary after being seriously injured in a car accident in 1960. This classic of the sports genre has enjoyed a subterranean popularity ever since its first publication in 1963.

A more recent U.S. edition was greeted with critical acclaim in literally dozens and dozens of newspapers, magazines, and journals (including a forerunner to this one: see my review in Changes, January-February 1985).

Beyond a Boundary boasts of three grand themes: the author’s childhood, cricket as art, and the meaning and limitations of “politics.” Like Moby Dick, it is stuffed with technical data; not about sailing, but about cricket as a game with a set of rules and a history of players and matches.

Cricket’s patterns of play are designed to satisfy deep longings that arise out of our collective need to give a coherent shape to the social world. In James’ view, cricket (and other arts, like literature) must reflect social contradictions. As I wrote four years ago:

“For James, the games and books of the British imperial overseers became instruments of national struggle. Cricket became, inadvertently, an occasion for Trinidadian unity and self-expression; literature became a private tool for advancement and enrichment. Although James does not label it as such, it is obvious that he is pointing out an instance of the Marxian dialectic in operation.”

Beyond a Boundary tells the wonderful story of Josh Rudder, the first Black engine driver on the Trinidad Government Railway, and James’ grandfather. “One Sunday afternoon near the end of the century,” Rudder was asked by the manager of a nearby sugar estate to look at a broken-down train engine that was causing delays in shipping. All of the foremen had tried to start up the engine, but nothing worked.

“Now on his way to the factory, Josh may have dug up from his tenacious memory some half-forgotten incident of an engine which would not go, or he may have come to the conclusion that if all these highly trained and practiced engineers were unable to discover what was wrong the probability was that they were overlooking some very simple matter that was under their very noses.”

When Rudder arrived at the estate, he insisted on working on the engine alone. The manager agreed, with reservations. “No one will ever know exactly what Josh did in there,” but the engine sputtered to life and the job was a success. The key aspect of the story is that Rudder refused to tell anyone how the job was done. “The obstinate man wouldn’t even tell me.”

Beating the Masters

Josh Rudder was a proud man, but he was also one of those who learned to beat the masters at their own game. James became the grandson who wrote the best book on cricket and who helped invent a language for Caribbean thought When Engels advised in the mid-1840s that socialists “make themselves at home in the world,’ he could have had C.L.R. in mind.

In light of Black Jacobins, Mariners, Renegades and Castaways and Beyond a Boundary, and many of his essays and articles, James must be considered a major figure of2othcentury intellectual life. I look forward to the many studies that will appear regarding his legacy; Buhie’s is an admirable start. But we should always remember that, first and foremost, James was the last of the literary Victorians.

November-December 1989, ATC 23

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