James D Young’s The World of C.L.R. James

Against the Current, No. 88, September/ October 2000

David Camfield

The World of CLR James: The Unfragmented Vision
by James D. Young,
(Glasgow: Clydeside Press, 37 High Street,
Glasgow G11LX, Scotland), 1999, 392 pages, $25.

C.L.R. JAMES (1901-1989) was born into the Black middle class of colonial Trinidad. A writer who earned a living as a teacher, he moved to Britain in 1932. As he later observed, “I arrived in England intending to make my way as a writer of fiction, but the world went political and I went with it.” (31)

And so he did. James’ encounter with British worker socialists and Marxist theory made him an anti-Stalinist revolutionary socialist for life. While a Trotskyist active in Pan-Africanist circles, he produced a brilliant pioneering history of the slave revolt in San Domingo (later Haiti), The Black Jacobins (1938).

In the publications and documents of a current within and later outside U.S. Trotskyism, James and his comrades developed their own distinctive Marxism which emphasized the centrality of the self-organized struggles of workers, African Americans and other oppressed groups, characterized the USSR as a state capitalist society, rejected the need for revolutionary parties, and, with Hegelian confidence, proclaimed the inevitable triumph of socialism.

From the 1950s on, “Third World” national liberation struggles assumed an increasingly prominent place in James’ thought.

But James was not only a political thinker and leader. He examined U.S. popular culture, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, the game of cricket and much more in a sustained effort to comprehend modern society in its totality in which the “struggle for happiness” of working people was central.

James’ intelligence, personality and oratorical power made a lasting impression on many who met him, including Scottish socialist James D. Young, the author of The World of CLR James.

There has been a revival of interest in the U.S. and British intelligentsia in CLR James over the decade since his death. His own work is more widely available than ever before. Quite a number of books and articles about James have been published.

Much of the academic discussion of James in the 1990s, however, bears the intellectual stamps of cultural studies and “post-colonial theory,” schools of thought generally hostile to Marxism and the Enlightenment, both traditions to which James adhered without hesitation.

James D. Young’s book is deliberately out of step with the times, and not just within “James studies.” Young, a labor historian, set out to write “a critical biographical study rather than a conventional biography of James — a critical interpretation locating him firmly in the context of Western socialism and the survival of civilization in the new century.” (6)

As the subtitle of the book suggests, Young wants to avoid viewing James through the limited perspective of a particular academic discipline. Instead, he seeks to show how “James’s political, historical and cultural work was indivisible, and in that lay his uniqueness.” (15)

This is an appropriate way to study the ideas of a thinker who, like so many of his comrades in the first half of the twentieth century, learned Marxism in a working-class socialist movement that had little contact with universities and their narrow-visioned disciplines.

Readers familiar with James or the history of socialism will find much of interest in Young’s book, including insights about racism in the European and U.S. left and the anti-racism of socialists Daniel DeLeon and Antonio Gramsci, James’ attitude towards British racism, his “thinking in colour,” how he was shaped by his first three decades in Trinidad and his interaction with the writer James Baldwin.

Among the numerous connections uncovered by Young that will be more obscure to many readers are the interest of Black nationalists in the right-wing writer Oswald Spengler and James’ relations with Scottish socialists in the 1930s.

A Problematic Analysis

There is no doubt that it is a major challenge to write a study that brings out the unity of C.L.R. James’ many-sided thought, and which is fully conscious of both the historical context and what James’ ideas offer to those who remain committed to a revolutionary and democratic socialism today.

That The World of CLR James must be judged less than a success is disappointing. Young claims that “more than anyone else, James was ultimately responsible for reviving the libertarian dimension of classical Marxism against the almost omnipotent perversions of Stalinism” (49), but does not present a rigorous case to support this bold claim.

He does not seriously scrutinize James’ Hegelian belief in the inevitability of socialism and the irreversible development of working-class consciousness. The suggestion that James’ confidence in the ability of working people to govern themselves was “essentially non-Trotskyist” (49) and that he was unconsciously a Marxist in the tradition of the Second International (75) are two of the book’s questionable political judgments. Another is the recurring of view of the Scots as oppressed “blacks.” (e.g. 13)

Young does not hide James’ “almost unqualified adulation” (267) for Kwame Nkrumah and other undemocratic leaders of anti-colonial movements. Nor, however, does he offer a convincing explanation for how a Marxist like James could make such assessments in the first place.

The author’s lifetime as a socialist historian is very evident in The World of CLR James. This is a source of the book’s strengths and some of its weaknesses, including a few irrelevant swipes at various contemporary Marxists.

Young’s goal of making visible the connections between James’s work and the social and intellectual history out of which it emerges is laudable. Unfortunately, the book is sometimes meandering and repetitive, contains a number of minor factual errors and would have definitely benefitted from the attention of a rigorous and sympathetic editor.

Those unfamiliar with James and the history of socialism would do well to read Kent Worcester’s CLR James: A Political Biography (1996) before tackling Young’s book. That said, The World of CLR James is a passionate if frustrating work that people familiar with its subject will find interesting. Its insistence on the unity of James’ thought and on his revolutionary Marxism is admirable, which makes its flaws all the more unfortunate.

ATC 88, September-October 2000