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Biography: C.L.R. JAMES
By Akins Vidale
Posted: June 29, 2004
"Mankind has obviously reached the end of something. The crisis is absolute. Bourgeois civilization is falling apart, and even while it collapses, devotes its main energies to the preparation of further holocausts…"
Best known as the author of The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, Cyril Lionel Robert James was born on January 4, 1901 in Port of Spain, the largest city in colonial Trinidad. Most of his youth was spent in the village of Tunapuna, just about eight miles outside the city. His intellectual legacy is succinctly described as complex and controversial, having made significant contributions in the fields of sport criticism, Caribbean history, literary criticism, Pan African politics and Marxist theory.
- Dialectic Materialism and The Fate Of Humanity- C.L.R. James (1947)
Up to the time of his death in May 1989, he displayed a unique understanding of the dilemma of humanity, a dilemma he called the struggle between socialism and barbarism. In his early Caribbean phase, it was implicit in his depiction of character and society through fiction and cricket writing; later it became politically focused through his active engagement with the tradition of revolutionary Marxism; until eventually, as a result of his experience of the New World, it became the expansive and unifying theme by which James approached the complexity of the modern world. These themes, if any, most accurately separate James' intellectual endeavours into discernable while not distinct phases, which can then be examined. It is this apparent lack of coherence in James' intellectual endeavours, which makes him unique. Moreover it is difficult at the least to isolate any of these as his true legacy and by his own words it is not necessary to do so, having said that …however far (he) may seem to leave politics, (he is) really on that subject, that is, an understanding of society.
His father was a schoolteacher, (the post of schoolteacher, at the time was, a significant position in the colonial Caribbean) and his mother, whom he described as "…a reader, one of the most tireless I have ever seen", had been educated in a Wesleyan convent. The influence of James' parents in his formative years is undeniable. The very period in itself proved to be a determinant factor where, the educated Blacks of the post-emancipation period, a group his parents belonged to, had a profound effect on the very direction of the Caribbean societies. His biographer Paul Buhle writes of his family that they:
"…had for two generations, on both sides, embraced respectability with a ferocious grip, 'not an ideal ... but an armour' against the angers of lumpenization. They had been more or less successful in this effort. All achievements remained precarious. But craft workers, schoolmasters, close readers of the press and of fine literature, they made a coherent life for themselves that would be the envy of colonized peoples across the world."
However, while his parents would have a key role in his formative years, it was his access to the game of cricket that could arguably be acknowledged as having affected him the most. James, recalls his early ritual, perched on a chair engaging in innocent analysis that he would only be aware of later on:
"Our house was superbly situated, exactly behind the wicket. A huge tree on one side and another house on the other limited the view of the ground, but an umpire could have stood at the bedroom window. By standing on a chair a small boy of six could watch practice every afternoon and matches on Saturdays . . . From the chair also he could mount on to the window-sill and so stretch a groping hand for the books on top of the wardrobe. Thus early the pattern of my life was set."
Not only did James, through watching, playing and studying cricket, develop at a precociously early age the method by which he later examined all other social phenomena; but also, as a boy, he had responded instinctively to something located much deeper in human experience. Cricket was whole. It expressed, in a fundamental way, the elements which constituted human existence - combining as it did spectacle, history, politics, sequence/tableau, movement/stasis, individual/society. He saw the game as extending beyond the "boundary" of the cricket pitch, interrogating the tenuous boundaries that separate culture from politics, race from class, high culture from low. Those "who only cricket know" forget that cricket, both a legacy of British Imperialism and a means of resistance against it, is an instrument of power, political ideology, and social transformation. In other words, James insists upon the inextricability or simultaneity of culture and politics. A theme he refines later in the United States.
James's "obsession" with the novels of Thackeray, particularly Vanity Fair, equally indebted to his infamous chair, was a decisive part of this developing awareness, and it fed directly into his close observations of the personality in society. He absorbed, too, what may inadequately be called the politics of Thackeray, that sharp satire by which the novelist exposed the petty pretensions and frustrated ambition of middle-class British society. But, more than anything else, James recognized early that literature offered him a vision of society, a unique glimpse of the human forces and struggles which animated history, a far cry from the static lives of members of his own family and class. It is this elusive experience, which had fascinated him, that would provide fundamental themes for his preliminary writings.
During the 1920s, James had begun to write fiction. He was drawn to the vitality of back street life, particularly to the independence and resourcefulness of its women. It became the creative source for his first published pieces; a series of short stories, La Divina Pastora (1927), Turner's prosperity, Triumph (1929) and a full-length novel, Minty Alley (1929). These established James as a competent if not formidable prose writer. Moreover they revealed the foundation of James's imaginative skill in his close observation of the raw material of human life. This closeness to the lives of ordinary men and women was something James consciously developed, but he never shook off his sense of being an outsider, of looking on rather than being a participant in the vibrancy of the ‘grassroots' communities. In an interview with Ken Ramchand, James reminisces on the contradiction between the literature which absorbed him and his own life:
"My father was a teacher, and there were teachers all around, his friends, they were working for the Government and their behaviour was within strictly limited areas. They weren't able to do anything out of place (…) their life was narrow, limited and very constricted according to certain principles and attitudes. But in Shakespeare, Aeschylus, in Tolstoy, in Dostoyevsky and the rest of them, things were taking place and tremendous conflicts were taking place and I found in the Caribbean, that in the life in which I had been brought up and in which all those teachers lived there was nothing corresponding to the violent conflicts and explosions and peculiar and interesting happenings that I found in Classic Literature…"
In spite of his relatively placid family environment, by its very nature and the circles in which his father moved, he was directly exposed to political thought, although not necessarily radical political thought, at an early age. The individual that provided this influence through his frequent visits to the James home was Hubert Alfonso Nurse. He was the father of Malcolm Nurse whom James would later meet in the US as George Padmore. [I moved this around considerably as I found it rather convoluted] Hubert Alfonso Nurse was a tremendous political mind in Trinidad. At the time when James was just about 7 or 8, he would listen to conversations between the two men. Through Mr. Nurse, the young James received his first exposure to Pan Africanists like Du Bois and Washington and the ideology of the revolution began to emerge. In fact, James recalls that he was the first man who said, "I am not Anglican, I am not Roman Catholic; I am a Muslim". James understood that he was not like the other visitors. This was James' foundation, his early Caribbean phase. It was not until later during his sojourn to England that he transformed himself into a prolific Marxist historian and political philosopher. However it is in Trinidad that he makes his first attempt at political analysis.
Early in 1930 his observation of Captain Cipriani was a mixture of both awe and envy. Here was Cipriani, as James put it, "saying all that was needed, to mobilise the people and federation and education", and he (James), a government servant, teaching at the Government Training College, lecturer in English and History, having progressive ideas but doing nothing, handicapped by the fact that if he had said anything, the Government would have thrown him out. His dilemma would find itself in pages of "The Case for West-Indian Self Government":
"In the colonies any man who speaks for his country any man who dares to question the authority of those who rule over him, any man who tries to do for his own people what Englishmen are so proud that other Englishmen have done for theirs, immediately becomes in the eyes of the colonial Englishman a dangerous person, a wild revolutionary, a man with no respect for law and order, a self seeker to be crushed at the first opportunity."
James sailed to England at the age of 31 with the intention of becoming a novelist. It was a journey many undertook from the colonies. Some sought education abroad, particularly entry into the professions of law and medicine; others were simply hungry for the experiences of a bigger world than the one which circumscribed the familiar society of their youth. For James, an educated black man, the move to England was critical if he was to realise his literary ambitions. On his journey, James carried with him the unpublished manuscript of the biography of Arthur Andrew Cipriani, the President of the Trinidad Workingmen's Association, which would be published in the Caribbean under the title of The Life of Captain Cipriani: An Account of British Government in the West Indies (1932) and excerpted in the UK as The Case for West-Indian Self Government (1933).
This account of Captain Cipriani's political career as a champion of the cause of West Indian self-government and federation, and populist leader of "the unwashed and unsoaped barefooted man" was James's first public political intervention. His second would be a look at one of the most revered leaders of the region, Toussaint L'Ouverture. This also marks another phase in his intellectual development.
In the United Kingdom, where he had come to pursue his literary career, James fortuitously found a job as cricket correspondent for the Manchester Guardian and the Glasgow Herald. He also started to read Marxism and decided to join first the Independent Labour Party and then the Trotskyist movement, as a matter of course. As he would recall later on, "when I'd finished [with Marx, Lenin and Trotsky's writings], I said, well, Marxism says that you have not only to read but to be active… so I joined" It is necessary to put this in here as James says of his books, Toussaint and the Negro revolt, "…those are Marxist books". Also from this period are the plays Toussaint L'Ouverture (1936), which was performed at London's Westminster Theatre with Paul Robeson in the lead role and James himself in a minor part; World Revolution 1917-1936: The Rise and Fall of the Communist International (1937), an orthodox Trotskyist history of the Comintern; and A History of the Negro Revolt (1938), a collection of studies on the Haitian Revolution, the role of Black slaves in the American Civil War, Garveyism, and African anti-colonial struggles.
He had already written and published in Trinidad, but he "was interested in some black history or history of black people where they did something, and they were not being continually the subject of actions and attitudes of other people". Through his preliminary work in Trinidad he knew that he had to write on the Haitian Revolution. "I would write that story, but I didn't think of it in terms of the Black Jacobins. When I went to England and then I went to France to look up the Archives there I saw the revolution of the colonial and underdeveloped peoples".
It is in the Black Jacobins that James begins to establish himself as a contemporary scholar. He redefines the relation between Europe and the colonies in the struggle for freedom and working class power. His ideological positions are clearly evident throughout the text. His juxtaposition of Marxism is all too apparent.
"The slaves worked on the land, and, like revolutionary peasants everywhere, they aimed at the extermination of their oppressors. But working and living together in gangs of hundreds on the huge sugar-factories which covered North Plain, they were closer to a modern proletariat than any group of workers in existence at the time, and the rising was, therefore, a thoroughly prepared and organized mass movement."
The other focus of The Black Jacobins is the figure of Toussaint L'Ouverture, the remarkable, yet fatally flawed, slaves' military commander, negotiator and political leader. James's own attitude towards Toussaint is indicative of his own scepticisms of the West Indian leadership, and the effects of colonisation on the mind. He expresses this on page 85:
"Toussaint's error sprang from the very qualities that made him what he was. It is easy to see today, as his generals saw after he was dead, where he had erred. It does not mean that they or any of us would have done better in his place. If Dessalines could see so clearly and simply, it was because the ties that bond this uneducated soldier to French civilisation were of the slenderest. He saw what was under his nose so well because he saw no further. Toussaint's failure was the failure of enlightenment, not of darkness."
James' concept of race is also apparent as he analyses the revolutionary potential and progress according to economic and class distinctions, rather than racial distinctions. This is not to say that James was naïve on the question of race.
The Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 led James to initiate his life-long attempt to synthesize Pan Africanism and Marxism. At the time of his conversion to Trotskyism, James considered them to be virtually synonymous. He lamented that he was bemused at the separatist ideas people possessed and expressed about Marxism versus the nationalist or racialist struggle. It must be remembered that while in England he edited both the Trotskyist paper and the nationalist, pro-African paper of George Padmore, and as he put it "…nobody quarreled. The Trotskyists read and sold the African paper and ... there were (African) nationalists who read and sold the Trotskyist paper. I moved among them, we attended each other's meetings and there was no problem because we had the same aim in general: freedom by revolution." James would also explore contradiction within his own personality, within the context of female companionship. At the centre was Constance Webb, the young American woman, who grasped instinctively the connections between those facets of human experience, which he had to work hard to bring into an active relationship.
For almost a decade James pursued this project privately, while being deeply immersed in more conventional political work that arose through his involvement in the Trotskyist movement. This period would be a real test of where James stood politically. James had begun to espouse doubts in Trotsky, articulating his concerns in his writings. The signing, in 1940, of the Hitler-Stalin pact, was viewed as a crisis in the revolutionary movement and required a re-examination of the Russian Revolution, and the question of the Soviet Union as a revolutionary State. The lengthy essay, Dialectical Materialism and the Fate of Humanity (1947) was James' attempt to sort out some of ambiguities in Trotskyist thinking, relating them directly to the dilemma at hand. He does so showing a distinctly more mature resolve on the subject matter - Marxist theory and dialectics - than when he had first moved from Trinidad in 1932. James sums up his newfound clarity towards the end of the paper as follows:
"Objectively and subjectively the solution of the crisis demands a total mobilisation of all forces in society. Partial solutions only create further disorders in the economy; partial demands, as such, because they are abstractions from the reality, lead only to disappointment; partial demands by leaders on the workers fail to mobilise their energies and leave them with a sense of frustration and hopelessness. Thus not only the concept but the need for universality reigns throughout all phases of society…This was the constant theme of Trotsky before he was murdered in 1940."
While this paper was a historical examination of the question of Marxist intellectualism and the realisation of the perverse Stalinist Russia, James was all too aware of his immediate surroundings. He showed keen insight into the contradictory status of African Americans in the wider American society.
He continued to write on the race question, incorporating a growing understanding the revolutionary history of America as it related specifically to its Black population. He displayed a prescient understanding of the immense political significance of these struggles for America as a whole, interpreting the struggle as having significance for the millions of colonial peoples worldwide, struggling to throw off the shackles of imperialist rule. His statement to the Trotskyist movement, The Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Problem in the USA (1948) was his attempt to articulate what he had so profoundly understood.
Through his work on history and the dialectic, and his engagement with pressing political questions in the United States, particularly the Black question, James had identified serious problems in Trotskyist ideas and method. Following Hegel, James contrasted the operation of dialectical thinking and creative reason, with the static categories of understanding which he identified as the fundamental flaw in the Trotskyist method itself. A flaw, which as far as James was concerned, had revealed itself most clearly in Trotsky's approach to the nature of the Soviet Union. Thus Anna Grimshaw could only surmise that cumulatively, the philosophical and political conclusions, which James reached during his American years, made his severance from the Trotskyist movement practically inevitable.
As class struggle began to decline, James started to identify more with the emerging nationalism of Africa and the Caribbean. In 1941 James left the Socialist Workers Party and formed the Johnson-Forest Tendency with philosopher Raya Dunayevskaya and others. The group translated sections of Marx's 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, attempted to insert Hegelian philosophy more directly into Marxist discussion, and developed a "state capitalist" analysis of the Soviet Union.
Furthermore he had defined a new position with respect to the nature of the Soviet Union and the role of the vanguard party. Within the Trotskyist milieu from which Johnson-Forest had emerged, their revolutionary optimism and belief in a coming workers' uprising that would overthrow State capitalism, was the subject of much scorn and ridicule. To the mounting pessimism of the Left, Johnson-Forest countered, as Paul Buhle has correctly summarised, "a vision of ordinary people in the US and everywhere, searching urgently for the means to remake the quality of their existence".
In 1950 James drove Johnson-Forest out of the SWP and set up the Correspondence Publishing Committee. James's commitment to revolutionary Marxism, however, remained unshakeable. James's fifteen-year stay in the United States is widely acknowledged to have produced his most important work. He often said so himself. Undoubtedly, the documents he wrote as a member of the Johnson Forest Tendency constitute a major contribution to the theory and practice of Marxism, extending the tradition to incorporate the distinctive features of the world in which James lived. By the mid-1950s, the Johnson-Forest Tendency having broken from Trotskyism's insistence on a revolutionary party, attempted to create a new type of Marxist organization. James began to advocate a loose form of struggle, which one writer has termed a "celebration of spontaneity."
James uncovered in America an intense desire among people to bring the separate facets of human experience into an active relationship, to express their full and free individuality within new and expanded conceptions of social life. This was "the struggle for happiness." James was conscious of this struggle within his own life, for he, too, was seeking integration. It found striking expression in the handwritten note to Constance which James attached to the back of his essay, Dialectical Materialism and the Fate of Humanity. He wrote:
"This is the man who loves you. I took up dialectic five years ago. I knew a lot of things before and I was able to master it. I know a lot of things about loving you. I am only just beginning to apply them. I can master that with the greatest rapidity - just give me a hand. I feel all sorts of new powers, freedoms etc. surging in me. You released so many of my constrictions. . . . We will live. This is our new world - where there is no distinction between political and personal any more."
It can be seen here that James under went an irreversible transition in his personality. The young boy of eight who stood at the window in Tunapuna, so innocently being transformed by the game of cricket had now taken on a political demeanour which was so instructive that he sought to formulate a personal life around it. By the late 1940s the tensions between his political role in the Johnson Forest Tendency and his personal commitment to a shared life with Constance Webb were almost tearing him apart. His marriage to Constance ended.
In the last period of his American sojourn, while fighting deportation, James wrote a long unfinished manuscript entitled American Civilization. James was seeking to grasp the whole (a recurrent theme he had adapted from his critique of the game of Cricket) at a particular moment in history. He, sought to distill the universal progress of civilization into a specific contrast between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (no doubt the Russian Revolution influenced this demarcation). The culture of the intellectuals was giving way to the emergence of the people as the animating force of history. His interpretation of events, as had been done before in Black Jacobins, was form the basis of those progressive forces emanating from the proletariat as opposed to the dominating ideologies of those who won wars.
James's understanding of Herman Melville lay at the centre of his work on America. He eventually made his debt to Melville more explicit and revised his drafted chapter on the nineteenth-century writers into a full-length critical study of Moby Dick- Mariners, Renegades and Castaway: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In (1953), - during his detention in Ellis Island. The book became the basis of his political campaign to avoid deportation from the United States.
This period was followed by a series of essays on aesthetics, literary criticism, cinema and the popular arts. It was characteristic of James that, as a prelude to offering his particular interpretation of Shakespeare, he outlined the foundations of his method. This involved taking a position vigorously opposed to the conventional tradition of literary criticism. James began to make explicit the principles which governed his approach in the opening pages of a document known as Preface to Criticism (1955). He anchored his critical method in Aristotle's Poetics. He took as his point of departure the dramatic quality of Shakespeare's work and made central an understanding of the performance itself, the role of the audience and the development of character and plot. It is not hard to identify here the emergent form of the project, which later became James's other masterpiece, the semi-autobiographical account of cricket and colonial life in the West Indies titled, Beyond a Boundary (1963).
Beyond A Boundary completed the search for integration which James had begun in the Caribbean some sixty years before. As a boy he had grasped intuitively the interconnectedness of human experience and through political work in Europe's revolutionary movement he developed a consistent method for approaching the complexity of the modern world, but it was his experience of America which enabled him to realise fully his integrated vision of humanity. Thus, it is almost impossible to think of Beyond A Boundary as being removed from his unpublished manuscript on American civilization. In both works James achieved an extraordinary creative synthesis, a fusion of the universal movement of world history with a particular moment in contemporary society.
In the years which followed the publication of Beyond A Boundary, James travelled widely through Africa and the Caribbean. His energies became focused on the problems of the newly independent countries. The Gold Coast revolution stood at the centre of the work he carried out during the second part of his life. The issues raised by this landmark in modern history drew him back into active involvement with the Pan-African movement. He was interested in exploring the dynamic connections between different aspects of the black Diaspora in order to establish the presence of Africa at the centre of the emerging post-war order.
He returned to the Caribbean in 1958 after an absence of twenty-six years, acutely aware of the significance of the historical moment. He saw the approach of independence as a time when fundamental questions concerning government, society and the individual were unusually clarified. He saw the region as being at the forefront of a critical turning point in the history of civilisation. James raised these issues in his public speeches, writings and journalism up until the early 1960s. He was anxious to make the Caribbean people aware that they were indeed at the forefront of the struggle to found the new society — one, which would reflect something fundamental about the movement of world society as a whole.
James believed that Caribbean society two hundred years ago had revealed the critical elements of a world system still in the early stages of its evolution. He understood the island societies at independence to be similarly placed. This lay behind his passionate advocacy of a West Indian federation. He left no doubt about his recognition of the power, creativity and capacity for self-organisation among ordinary people. The new leadership however held a different if not opposing view. He left immediately after the elections won by the nationalist movement, as he realised that the latter was trading British colonialism for US neo-colonialism. Upon his return, the clichéd prodigal son found that Dr Eric Williams also had a differing view on how that story should end, and when he returned in 1965 he was immediately placed under house arrest.
On his release he founded the Workers' and Farmers' Party, which unsuccessful contested, the 1966 election. James would play no further direct role in the politics of the twin island state. In the last decades of his life, James refashioned himself as a teacher and political eminence grise in contexts as diverse as the UK, where he lectured for the BBC on a variety of subjects spanning Shakespeare to cricket, Pan-Africanism to Polish Solidarity, and the US, where he finally achieved public recognition as a surviving forefather of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements.
During his last years James often reflected upon his life's course, riding the gentle wave of academic fame thrown up for him by the storms of Black Power, and surrounding himself with eager young associates. Although his strength was slowly, almost imperceptibly, slipping away, he could in conversation often startle his visitors with the brilliance of his insight, his grasp of the details of history, the accuracy of his analysis of contemporary events. He remained a revolutionary to the core.
One of James' most important influences was the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. In contrast to Trotsky, James came late to a political understanding of his life. Having intimate experience with the debilitating colonial system, James was a consistent and committed activist against imperialism. He spent his life reflecting on a contradictory consciousness torn between the metropole and the colony. He was never able to synthesize these opposites. Perhaps he came close in Beyond A Boundary, finding within his own life something that could match the allure of the back streets of Minty Alley. He learned about himself as an artist through the great products of Western civilization, the Bible, Shakespeare and the classic nineteenth-century novel. But he also intuitively grasped, from his Caribbean surroundings, the incapacity of the accompanying 'master race' narcissism to encompass the many-sidedness of humanity. Confronting the enigma of Western civilization's self-destructive path, James spent his lifetime searching out antidotes. He died in his one bedroom flat in Brixton, London, in 1989.
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Farred, Grant, ed. Rethinking C. L. R. James. Blackwell, Oxford, 1996.
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Santiago-Valles, W. F.. "The Caribbean Intellectual Tradition That Produced James and Rodney"
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