C.L.R. James: Intellectual Legacies

Against the Current, No. 35, November/December 1991

Kent Worcester

THE LIFE AND work of C.L.R. James (1901-1989) has attracted new interest in a variety of places. A provocative collection of essays, Tribute to a Scholar, was published in 1990 by students at the University of the West Indies; and Paul Buhle’s recent biography has provided many readers with an overall sense of James’s apparently disparate activities as a Caribbean historian, Marxist theorist, and literary critic.

In addition, over two hundred academics recently attended an international conference on James’s Intellectual legacies” held at Wellesley College. A reevaluation of one of the century’s major intellectual figures, the author of such classics as The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (1938), Mariners, Renegades and Castaways: Herman Melville and the World We Live In (1953), and Beyond a Boundary (1963) is now underway.

C.L.R. James led a productive and peripatetic life, and he left a complex and contested legacy. Born in colonial Trinidad at the turn of the century, he became a prominent advocate of Pan-African, socialist, and revolutionary principles. For many years he was an active Trotskyist, and it was as a Fourth Internationalist that he developed a distinctive analysis of the radical dynamics of African-American politics.

In the 1940s and 1950s he collaborated with a small coterie of indigenous radicals (the “Johnson-Forest” tendency) and advanced a “state-capitalist” perspective on the internal workings of the Soviet Union. They combined Marxist theorizing with strike support work, day-to-day cultural observation and party building. But by the early 1950s, the group had renounced Trotskyism and had set out to create a new type of Marxist organization, one that would promote the self-activity of American workers, Blacks, women and young people. James himself was expelled from the United States for “passport violations” in 1953.

From the 1960s until his death he cleaved to a characteristically idiosyncratic Marxism. He was at the same time a Garveyite and an Aristotelian; a theorist and a polemicist; a Leninist and a libertarian socialist; a gentleman and a rebel.

Strange Mixture At Wellesley

The Wellesley conference, which was held in April 1991, brought together a diverse group of Caribbean, British and U.S. academics, and non-affiliated radicals and booksellers. Disappointingly few participants were under thirty-five, however, and the atmosphere was all too similar to typical academic conferences.

Panels were held on such topics as “West Indian Responses to C.LR. James,” “James and Culture,” and “James and Philosophy.” Arguably, the high point of the conference was Derek Walcott’s address and poetry reading. Other highlights included former Labour Party leader Michael Foot’s defense of the intellectual heritage of the French Revolution, and Martin Glaberman’s keynote.

The chief controversy at the conference was James’s alleged “Eurocentrism” and the relationship between his Marxist politics and the concrete needs of Black and Third World social movements. While some speakers sought to defend James as a philosopher of liberation, others attacked him on the grounds that his work is tainted by the “racism” of Hegel, Marx, and the ancient Greeks.

The author Horace Campbell sought to decouple C.L.R. James from the Marxist tradition, while the London-based academic Winston James was scathing in his denunciation of the Enlightenment and Marxist roots of James’s radicalism. A couple of speakers chastised James for his failure to adopt a suitably post-modem outlook on politics and culture.

In short, the conference failed to provide—or generate—a coherent sense of James’s life as an integrated whole.

New Resources

The conference did provide the C.L.R. James Institute with an opportunity to distribute its new pamphlets. These pamphlets represent a major departure in “Jamesian studies,” as they accent the cultural, intellectual, and “writerly” dimensions of James’s life and work.
The most impressive of the new pamphlets, The C.L.R. James Archive: A Readers’ Guide, offers an unparalleled view of James’s political biography from 1949 onwards. Annotated by Anna Grimshaw, a writer and anthropologist who served as James’ personal assistant during the 1980s, the Readers’ Guide describes the contents of dozens of unpublished manuscripts, letters, notebooks, and lectures contained in the archive.

Tantalizing references are made toes-says on Jackson Pollock, Richard Wright, King Lear, and to “the Nobbie stories,” children’s stories written in the 19505 for his only son, C.L.R. James Jr.

Another of the Institute’s pamphlets, C.LR. James and “The Struggle for Happiness,” by Anna Grimshaw and Cambridge University academic Keith Hart, recovers the unjustly neglected 1950 manuscript Notes on American Civilization.

Retitled The Struggle for Happiness by Grimshaw and James in the mid-1980s, this manuscript was prepared at the dawn of the Cold War as an intervention—which was originally intended for the widest possible audience—in American intellectual culture, but was set aside as a consequence of James’s conflict with the immigration authorities.

Civilization, Capitalism, Happiness

While James had revealed the extent of his interest in U.S. history and culture in private correspondence, this manuscript reflected a different side of its author’s personality than the one disclosed in the Johnson-Forest polemics.

The text of Notes on American Civilization/The Struggle for Happiness is divided into two sections. The first explores “the making of modem America” as reflected in the writings of Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Frederick Douglass and other nineteenth century intellectuals; the second examines the prospects for radical mobilization on the part of industrial workers, Blacks, and women in the postwar period.

The two sections are connected by an extended essay on the role of Hollywood movies and other modem popular art forms in mediating the “struggle for happiness.” The book draws a sharp contrast between European society, characterized by conflict over social equality and political representation, and American society, distinguished by an essentially romantic conception of the importance of individual happiness.

In this context, “happiness” refers to the integration of the individual with the society in a way that allows the individual to express his or her full personality. As James wrote:

“Any attempt to show what America is today which does not scrupulously define and delineate the unique origins of the country and the creation of the special ideas and ideals which distinguish it, any book on America which does not do these things, is doomed to failure. Liberty, freedom, pursuit of happiness, free individuality had an actuality and a meaning in America which they had nowhere else. The Europeans wrote and theorized about freedom in superb writings. Americans lived it. That tradition is the most vital tradition in the country today. Any idea that it is merely a tradition, used by unscrupulous July fourth politicians to deceive the people, destroys any possibility of understanding the crisis in America today.”

There was, however, a twist to the story. The tension embedded in American life involved the fact that the contradiction between ideals and reality was in many respects sharper in the U.S. than in other countries. A key passage reads:

“Upon a people bursting with energy, untroubled by feudal remains or a feudal past, soaked to the marrow in a tradition of individual freedom, individual security, free association, a tradition which is constantly held before them as the basis of their civilization, upon this people more than all others has been imposed a mechanized way of life at work, mechanized forms of living a mechanized totality which from morning to night, week after week, day after day, crushes the very individuality which tradition nurtures and the abundance of mass-produced goods encourages.”

For James, a rent in the ideological fabric of American civilization was threatening to tear it apart As he vigorously asserted in the second half of the manuscript, only the mobilization of collective working-class and popular energies could restore, extend, and transform the country’s founding democratic ideals.

He warned that in the absence of a popular upsurge certain authoritarian trends evident, for example, in the centralization of executive political authority, would manifest themselves. The struggle for happiness would only be realized once the logic of capitalism itself was challenged at the political and at the cultural level.

Appreciating Popular Culture

The most remarkable aspect of The Struggle for Happiness is not so much its unabashed defense of generic American values–a defense that more or less draws on the tradition of Alexis de Tocqueville—as its rich dissection of popular culture. After all, few Marxist theorists writing before the 1960s deigned to even allude to cultural phenomena as comic strips, jazz, film noir, and pulp fiction.

Throughout the manuscript James relates culture to politics in a serious and non-reductive manner. There is, for example, an insightful chapter concerning the subordination of women in modem society that draws both on women’s magazines and cultural anthropology. The author’s essential radicalism is conveyed beautifully in the chapter’s conclusion:

“Men and women will be equal when from the very start, cooking washing and other household duties, child care, personal adornment, games, sports, etc. are taught to children by world which makes no distinction at all between the sexes. The age of chivalry must go and go finally and irrevocably… Only when men by upbringing not so much bywords but by social practice can turn their hands to every single social and domestic necessity in the home and not feel it disruption of the personality pattern to do so, will there be any possibility of equality. Under these circumstances, even a baby in the home does not become automatically the woman’s sphere, except fora very few months at least.”

The Struggle for Happiness offers a fascinating window onto American life in the late 1940s. Its emphasis on autonomous social movements of Blacks, women and workers anticipated developments in the late 1950s and 1960s. And my of its insights—concerning the gulf between Europe and America, the subaltern role of women in society, and the democratic and emancipatory possibilities expressed in popular culture—may still resonate today. We can only hope that this forgotten chef d’oeuvre is brought into print as soon as possible.

November-December 1991, ATC 35