C.L.R. JAMES (Trinidad, 1901 – 1989)

By Christian Høgsbjerg

The Trinidadian historian and writer Cyril Lionel Robert James was a towering figure of Pan-Africanism, a penetrating commentator on cultural matters and also one of the most remarkable revolutionary thinkers of the twentieth century who felt his ‘greatest contributions’ had been ‘to clarify and extend the heritage of Marx and Lenin’ and ‘to explain and expand the idea of what constitutes the new society.’

C.L.R. James was born on 4January 1901 in Trinidad, a tiny island then languishing as a ‘Crown colony’ in the economic backwaters of the British Empire.  His parents, Robert and Ida Elizabeth James, were black and lower middle class, and both their fathers had worked their way up from almost nothing as immigrants from Barbados.  On his father’s side, James’s grandfather made it as a pan boiler on one of Trinidad’s huge sugar estates (a post traditionally reserved by the white owners for other whites) and so into the nascent emerging black middle class of Trinidad after the abolition of colonial slavery in the 1830s.  His struggle enabled his son Robert James to escape a life of manual labour on the sugar estates to become a respected teacher, and later headmaster.  Possessing only ‘cultural capital,’ the James family invested this in the only place they could, preparing their son to sit the entrance examination for the island’s elite school, Queen’s Royal College (QRC).   CLR James was an uncommonly gifted boy and aged just nine, became the youngest boy ever to win the necessary exhibition.  Yet expectations that he would graduate from QRC with a scholarship to go abroad and study for a profession were to be dashed.  James clearly could have chosen such a route had he wanted to, but his interest was increasingly distracted by life outside the classroom.  Instead of paying full attention to Oxbridge educated teachers of Latin and Greek, James indulged his love for the game of cricket and for reading English literature.

After leaving QRC in 1918, though returning there as a teacher of English and History during the 1920s, all the contradictions of colonial rule – the hypocrisy, tyranny and injustice – slowly but steadily dawned on James.  When a mass nationalist movement took off around Captain Cipriani, a charismatic workers’ leader, who often declared himself ‘the champion of the barefooted man,’ James took notice and become a supporter of Cipriani’s mass social-democratic Trinidad Workingmen’s Association.  James’s first published book would be a political biography, The Life of Captain Cipriani (1932), though by then he had already made his name as a writer of implicitly anti-colonialist short stories for short-lived magazines such as Trinidad and The Beacon, as part of a wider awakening of West Indian literature.  As James later noted, ‘the basic constituent of my political activity and outlook’ was already set out in ‘the “human” aspect’ of Minty Alley (1936), the novel he wrote in 1928 about the working people of one ‘barrack-yard’ he stayed with that summer.

In 1932, James made the ‘voyage in’ to imperial Britain, spending ten months in the Lancashire cotton textile town of Nelson, staying with the family of his friend the legendary Trinidadian professional cricketer Learie Constantine.  James’s ten months in Nelson would be ‘ten months that shook James’s world’, and he witnessed not only the devastating effects of the collapse of the Lancashire cotton industry, but alongside mass poverty he also saw a working class community of resistance proudly fighting back.   In Nelson, James was also inspired by reading the Russian Marxist Leon Trotsky’s recent magisterial History of the Russian Revolution.  By 1934, amidst the rise of fascism across Europe on the back of mass unemployment created by the worst crisis in the history of capitalism, James politically radicalised towards Marxism, joining the tiny international Trotskyist movement.  The rise of Hitler onto the world stage proclaiming himself the saviour of the Aryan race meant James now defiantly adopted a more radical, transnational identification with other black people (and their culture) – evolving into a militant ‘class struggle Pan-Africanist’. The course of James’s life as a revolutionary intellectual was now set.

By 1934, James, having moved down to London had secured a prestigious job reporting cricket for the Manchester Guardian.  Within a year, James had established his reputation on the British Left for his leading role in attempting to organize opposition to Fascist Italy’s barbaric war against the people of Ethiopia, which began in October 1935. As Chair of the newly formed International African Friends of Abyssinia (IAFA), James cut through what he called ‘the mountain of lies and nonsense’ which surrounded the war, lies which had confused even sections of the Left in Britain, damning the role of not just Mussolini but European Imperialism in Africa more generally in a series of outstanding articles and speeches.  As a campaigner for ‘West Indian self-government’, James had long been interested in the rich hidden history of the Caribbean, and turned his historical research on the Haitian Revolution into a play, Toussaint Louverture: The story of the only successful slave revolt in history, starring the legendary black American star of the stage and screen Paul Robeson in the title role, staged in London in March 1936.  James now wrote a series of pioneering historical works, World Revolution, 1917-1936 (1937) an anti-Stalinist account of ‘the rise and fall of the Communist International’, A History of Negro Revolt (1938), a path-breaking history of revolutionary black internationalism, and his magnum opus, The Black Jacobins, his magisterial and panoramic classic account of the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804.  James by now was also working closely with his boyhood friend and compatriot George Padmore, a former leading figure in the Communist International who in 1933 had broken away and in 1937 founded the militant Pan-Africanist International African Service Bureau (IASB), based in London.  Other leading members of this organisation during this period included Amy Ashwood Garvey, Jomo Kenyatta, Ras T. Makonnen, Chris Braithwaite and I.T.A. Wallace-Johnson, and James would edit the IASB publications Africa and the World and International African Opinion.

In 1938, James was delegated to an important international gathering of Trotskyists, and would be elected to the International Executive Committee of the newly launched Fourth International, ‘World Party of Socialist Revolution’.  In late 1938, after translating Boris Souvarine’s biography of Stalin, James left Britain to go on a speaking tour for the American Trotskyist movement[Paul1]  for sixth months, though he ended up staying in America for the next fifteen years.  In April 1939, James spent a week with Leon Trotsky himself in order to discuss the strategy and tactics of black liberation struggles in the United States. James’s radical and original attempt to solve what was then known as ‘the Negro question’, developed after actively organising among striking black sharecroppers’ in southeastern Missouri and carrying out wider anti-war agitation, would in the 1960s influence important groups in America such as the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.  After Trotsky’s murder in 1940, James under the pseudonym ‘J.R. Johnson’ alongside Raya Dunayevskaya (‘Freddie Forest’) and Grace Lee Boggs, formed the ‘Johnson-Forest Tendency’ within American Trotskyism in order to attempt to deal with the profound crisis the movement was now thrown into. The tendency made a highly original attempt to, as James wrote in 1948 in Notes on Dialectics, make a ‘leap from the heights of Leninism’ through breaking with ‘orthodox Trotskyism’ and returning to the writings of Hegel, Marx and Lenin in order to face up to the new realities after the Second World War world.  James’s refusal to treat Trotsky’s writings of the late 1930s as sacrosanct but instead attempt to theoretically develop Marxist theory so it could make sense of new realities shows his creativity.  The tendency’s development of a theory of state capitalism to understand the Stalinist regimes enabled them, like the French group ‘Socialisme Ou Barbarie’ around Cornelius Castoriadis and the Socialist Review Group around Tony Cliff in Britain to preserve an orientation around Marx’s central theoretical insight that the emancipation of the working class would be the conquest of the working class itself.  The Johnson-Forest Tendency also attempted to ‘Americanize’ Marxism and Bolshevism, and James’s wide-ranging writings on culture and society in this vein included American Civilization (1949-1950) and Mariners, Renegades and Castaways (1953) – a classic study of Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick.

However for all James’s grasp of Marxism as a living, ever-evolving theory, his increasingly profound political isolation amid the rising tide of McCarthyism at the height of the Cold War, had inevitably damaging consequences.    In 1953, he was forced to return to Britain, and the Johnson-Forest Tendency soon broke up – despite seeing much of its analysis vindicated by events such as the rebirth of Workers’ Councils in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.  James’s own lifelong anti-colonialism was also to be vindicated with the victories of national independence movements across Africa and the Caribbean, not least in Ghana under the leadership of Padmore’s disciple Kwame Nkrumah and Trinidad itself, with the rise to power of the People’s National Movement (PNM) led by James’s friend and former student Eric Williams.  In 1957, James took part in the independence celebrations in Ghana, but by the early 1960s had experienced not only the hope but also – as he detailed in Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution (1977) – the despair of national liberation struggles, as Nkrumah’s victorious brand of ‘Pan-African Socialism’ steadily descended into autocratic dictatorship.

Aside from playing a leading role in achieving a significant symbolic victory in the appointment of Frank Worrell as the first black captain of the West Indian cricket team, James suffered an even more painful experience after returning to Trinidad in 1958 to play his part in the movement towards in independence across the Caribbean.  James became secretary of the Federal Labour Party, the governing party of the embryonic West Indies Federation, and took on editing the PNM weekly paper The Nation.  By 1960 however, as he detailed in his book Party Politics in the West Indies, he had broken with Williams as a result of the break up of the West Indies Federation, and the latter’s agreement to the retention of a U.S. naval base at Chaguaramas and more general abandonment of non-alignment in favour of support for America in the context of the Cold War.   The publication of James’s 1960 lecture series on Marxism, Modern Politics, was banned in Trinidad, and James returned to England a few days before Trinidad’s independence in 1962.

James now published his classic semi-autobiographical cultural history of West Indian cricket, Beyond a Boundary (1963), revised The Black Jacobins for a second edition and also revised his play about the Haitian Revolution – now also called The Black Jacobins (first performed in 1967) in order to take account of the new realities of liberation struggles in the age of decolonisation.  In 1965, James made a brief return to Trinidad as a cricket correspondent but was placed under house arrest by Williams for a short period until a public outcry ensured his release.  In the few months he spent in Trinidad, he founded and edited a new Trinidadian paper We the People and formed a new left-wing political party, the Workers’ and Farmers’ Party, though both projects were to be short-lived.  James now travelled widely between Britain, the USA, Canada and the Caribbean and initiated (but ultimately boycotted as a result of its support for authoritarian regimes) the sixth Pan-African Congress in Dar-es-Salaam in 1974.   In later years, he continued to write and lecture widely and while increasingly honoured as a living icon of twentieth-century Pan-Africanism and remaining an inspirational figure to many young black radicals, including Walter Rodney. In the 1980s, James lived in Brixton in London, and from his room above the Race Today collective organised by his great nephew Darcus Howe.  Here James not only witnessed not only the riots against unemployment and police racism by young black and white youth across Britain in the summer of 1981 but also felt some vindication of his courageous, creative revolutionary democratic politics of ‘socialism-from-below’, with the eruption of movements such as Solidarity in Poland and, just before his passing, the opening scenes of the 1989 revolutions.

Anthony Bogues, Caliban’s Freedom; The Early Political Thought of C.L.R. James (London, 1997).

Paul Buhle (ed.), C.L.R. James: His Life and Work (London, 1986).

Paul Buhle, C.L.R. James: The Artist as Revolutionary (London, 1993).

Margaret Busby, ‘C.L.R. James: A Biographical Introduction’, in C.L.R. James, At the Rendezvous of Victory; Selected Writings, Vol. 3 (London, 1984).

Selwyn R. Cudjoe and William E. Cain (eds.), C.L.R. James; His Intellectual Legacies (Amherst, 1995).

Robert A. Hill, ‘C.L.R. James: The Myth of Western Civilisation’, in Lamming, George, (ed.), Enterprise of the Indies (Port of Spain, 1999).

Christian Høgsbjerg, ‘C.L.R. James: The Revolutionary as Artist’, International Socialism, 112 (2006).

Scott McLemee and Paul Le Blanc (eds.), C.L.R. James and Revolutionary Marxism; Selected writings of C.L.R. James, 1939-49 (New Jersey, 1994).

Frank Rosengarten, Urbane Revolutionary: C.L.R. James and the Struggle for a New Society (Jackson, 2008).

Andrew Smith, C.L.R. James and the Study of Culture (Basingstoke, 2010).

Kent Worcester, C.L.R. James; A Political Biography (New York, 1996).