C.L.R. James and His Times

Against the Current, No. 188, May/June 2017

Anthony Bogues

Every Cook Can Govern:
The Life, Impact and the Works of C.L.R. James
A Worldwrite documentary
Order the DVD at www.clrjames.uk, email world.write@btconnect.com.

C.L.R. JAMES WAS a revolutionary thinker. Born at the beginning of the 20th century (1901) in the Caribbean island of Trinidad, he lived in Britain, the United States and the Caribbean. At his death in May 1989, he was widely acknowledged as one of the most important radical writers and theorists of the 20th century.

His political and intellectual life spanned and was deeply committed to the international Marxist movement, the radical anti-colonial movement of Africa and the Caribbean, the radical struggles for Black liberation in the USA; the Pan-Africanist movement (he was one of the inspirational figures for the former SNCC activists to organize the 6th Pan African Congress in Tanzania in 1972), and the struggle for the West Indies Federation in the late 1950s and early ’60s.

James’ political interventionist work generally drew from the ideas of Marx, Lenin and when he was a Trotskyist, particularly in the late 1930s, from the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky.

Like many other 20th-century radicals, James was shaped by the Russian Revolution; but there were two other distinctive elements to this shaping. In the first James was a colonial subject — a Black colonial subject. This meant that while coming of age in the wake of the Russian revolution he would grapple with the revolution’s significance and consequence through his Caribbean colonial experience.

Thus in England during the early 1930s he followed a dual political practice in which he developed radical anti-colonial activity, working with George Padmore and others, while also being politically active with the Trotskyist movement. James’ colonial experience not only influenced his political and intellectual practice; it also shaped his sensibilities.

He noted in many interviews that two things were responsible for who he became: the novel Vanity Fair, and cricket. From both James developed and practiced a form of politics and historical writing that was preoccupied with the lives of ordinary people. It is through this engagement that he wrote his famous pamphlet “Every Cook Can Govern,“ the evocative title of the Worldwrite feature documentary on James’ life.

The Biopic

James’ life was an epic one. He was, as Robert Hill notes in the film, the “West Indian Abroad.” I would go further and argue that he was a West Indian who stamped his presence on the world. From such a perspective as well as his long life any documentary then has to weave a narrative that maps his ideas and life — from politics to cricket to his love of literature.

Every Cook Can Govern: The Life, Impact and Works of C.L.R. James attempts to do this by a series of rare photo montages as well as footage of James himself speaking. This footage and photographs are supplemented with extensive interviews with scholars.

As a crowd-funded project with many volunteers involved in the making of the film, part of the ethos of its making are the interviews conducted by volunteers as it seeks to illuminate how “every cook“ may be able to govern. The film is an ambitious project and as the first feature-length documentary of C.L.R. James, it should be seen.

The images of James are something to behold, including the rare Banyan interview (1980) as he holds forth on cricket, Shakespeare and politics. The footage on Nelson in Lancashire, where James lived with the Caribbean cricketer Learie Constantine after he arrived in London, is stunning.

The way in which the story of James, cricket and living in Nelson is told through a narrative of a British working-class town and aspects of its cultural life knits together James’ life and ideas with that of place. All these things are illustrative of one of the major strengths of the documentary — its careful tracing of the historical context of James’ life and ideas.

Reworking Marxist Theory

However, as in many such documentaries that treat complex lives there are gaps. So are the gaps critical enough? Would they add substance to the narrative? From my perspective I think so.

For example, a great deal of attention is accurately paid to the conditions that produced James’ book Mariners, Renegades and Castaways (1953), his study of Herman Melville written while he was detained on Ellis Island. Yet little attention is paid to the James’ pathbreaking work “The Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Problem “ and his political and theoretical work around what was called in the 1940s “The Negro Question.”

I wondered a bit at this because I would argue that it is his consideration of this question along with that of culture which creates the grounds for him to rework Marxist theory, developing an independent Marxism.

Other Marxists in this period developed a theory of state capitalism, or to put it more accurately there were debates in the 1940s around the nature of the then Soviet Union which would produce such a theory.  However, it is James’ work on the African-American struggle and his work on culture, best understood by reading American Civilization, that opens up a new terrain for radical theory.

James’ first American sojourn engaged him in a political process that facilitated his own independent theoretical thinking. To my mind the documentary does not pay sufficient attention to this period, nor to his second American sojourn — one in which he reformulated his Pan-African political practice.

As I said, a documentary and the cinematic form in general is not one where the full story can be told. Instead cinema constructs visual narratives which tell us in paradoxical ways both slices and historical moments.

James’ life was an instance of a form of 20th century radicalism, indeed he shaped that radicalism. This is important since within this historical period there were other attempts at revisionist Marxism. One such current operated under the rubric of the Frankfurt School and posited that mass culture was about duping the masses rather than a terrain of contestation. This was in contrast to James.

The argument here is not that James was a cultural theorist. Rather, it is that as a radical theorist he attempted to understand human life in all its complexities. He was a political personality and his political instincts never left him. But he saw politics in relationship to a critical question which he spent time thinking about — what was the good life?

He was drawn to that question from his study of Greek society, but in his hands it became a broader question about the possibilities for ordinary people to transform society and create a new world. Thus reading James and then watching the documentary one cannot but recall his comment in his 1960s book on cricket, Beyond a Boundary where he writes, “In my private mind … I was increasingly aware of large areas of human existence that my history and my politics did not seem to cover….”

Watching the documentary one gets a sense of James always searching for the new. This search was rooted in a historical optimism that was always his guide. It was something that saturated his seminal book on the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins (1938), as well as his remarkable co-authored book on the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, Facing Reality (1958).

A viewer may argue that the historical context of James generated this optimism and that we live in a different era and moment. It is true that we are in different times and there is a historical sense to James’ ideas that we see in the documentary. But James’ ideas were not only rooted in history; he had a sense of historical optimism since for him history was never closed but was always open.

This is one of the reasons why the “undying vision “of Charlie Chaplin was so attractive to him. It is what makes him still relevant to our times.

There needs to be more documentaries on James and there will be. No one work can cover everything and each generation will reinterpret James as needs be; but Every Cook Can Govern: The Life, Impact & Works of C.L.R. James is a necessary and solid beginning.

May-June 2017, ATC 188