Scott McLemee
Letters from London
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Bookforum, Fall 2003

back to Reviews

Letters from London: Seven Essays. By C. L. R. James. Edited by Nicholas Laughlin, with an introduction by Kenneth Ramchand. Port of Spain, Trinidad and Lebanon, New Hampshire: Prospect Press/University Press of New England. 144 pages. .

 

Following the death of C.L.R. James in 1989, there was a brief period when it seemed possible, even likely, that his work would be rediscovered in all its complexity. This never happened. Instead, James became an icon: a figure honored, though seldom actually read with any care. His work became just another territory to be colonized by the cliché-mongers of post-coloniality (and related post-everything-ist conditions). There was no need to submit to the discipline of understanding James on his own terms. The layers of political and intellectual context shaping his work could be ignored. Or -- what is the same thing, differently practiced -- reduced to formulas.

It was sufficient to know, for instance, that James had written The Black Jacobins (1938), a history of the Haitian slave revolt, while under the influence of Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution -- then to gloss this by announcing that James was the solitary representative of the Third World active in the Trotskyist movement during the 1930s and ‘40s. Thus one erases the mass movement of his Vietnamese comrades from the historical record as efficiently as Ho Chi Minh wiped it from the face of the earth. It has become a commonplace to say of Beyond a Boundary (1963) that James used the history of cricket as the starting point for a philosophical meditation on class, culture, and empire. And true enough. But the fact that James’s prose in that book rang with the overtones of William Hazlitt and Matthew Arnold (and none at all from Franz Fanon) has been an incovenient matter, best ignored.

With hindsight, the first sign of trouble was visible even during his lifetime, when people dubbed him "the Black Plato." It was a bizarre way to characterize a thinker whose arefully worked-out Marxist conceptions of totality, subjectivity, and teleology were always governed by an explicit allegiance to the Aristotelean principle of eudaimonia, or "flourishing," also known as the pursuit of happiness. But precision in understanding James’s relationship to "Western Civilization" has never been a high priority for people embarrassed by the fact that he used that term without sarcasm. With a sense of nuance, yes: the influence of Oswald Spengler on the development of James’s worldview was considerable. But the very fact that he studied The Decline of the West – and repeatedly read Thackery’s Vanity Fair and Hegel’s Science of Logic -- proves a quaint biographical detail. It is rather like knowing that, in his final years, James watched soap operas. Indeed, for the cultural studies people, his readings of German kulturkritik are by no means decisive to his place on the syllabus. (The implicit syllogism runs like so: "C.L.R. James was a revolutionary intellectual who watched a lot of television. I watch a lot of television. Therefore, I am a revolutionary intellectual.")

 

****

 

With the appearance of Letters from London, it seems almost as if C. L. R. James were making a posthumous critique of his academic admirers. A slender volume containing seven essays originally published in a Trinidadian newspaper in 1932, it reveals the essential James: a cosmopolitan man of letters from a small island at the margins of the imperialist world-system, his sensibility shaped by the literature of the Victorian era. More distinctly than any other work, Letters charts James’s growing ambivalence about the culture he has absorbed. But ambivalence is not refusal, just as gnarled syntax is not (necessarily) subtle. James’s essays are composed in a dry, translucent prose that gives full force to the complexity of his response to his new location -- and his inner dislocation

It would be several years before James began to publish the work that established him. Even so, these essays are not juvenalia. When he left Trinidad in late February of 1932, James was 31 years old. He had edited the island’s two most prominent literary journals, and for many years kept up with cultural developments in London via its higher-toned newspapers and magazines (albeit with the two-week delay imposed by trans-Atlantic crossing). In his short stories, and in an autobiographical novel drafted in the late 1920s, later issued as Minty Alley (1936), James had concentrated on portraying life in the "barracks yards" – the slums occupied Trinidad’s poorest stratum.

The almost ethnographic quality of James’s fiction is also evident in his articles about London. There are sketches of lower-middle class boarding houses, of shopgirls out for a night of entertainment -- and of young intellectuals from the colonies who must deal not only with student poverty, but with their uncertain status as people of color dwelling in the very heart of the empire.

James himself was in the same position, of course. His descriptions of routine experience are also accounts of his own response to a social order that defined him as an Other -- without yet knowing quite how to respond when that Other was on British soil. (Large-scale immigration of black West Indians would only begin after World War Two.) "You will make friends with certain people or even certain families," he writes, "and they will stick by the average coloured man and even quarrel with some of their friends who treat him in any out-of-the-way manner, and generally prove themselves staunch with a staunchness that is particularly British." But on other occasions, he receives the poisonous scrutiny of a train passenger who "shuffled his feet, and glared at me, and look me up from head to foot, and squirmed and twisted like a man suffering from an acute attack of dystentery or colitis."

Now, this account of race relations in the U.K., circa 1932, appears about two-thirds of the way through the series. It occupies just a few pages. And the tone is perfectly cool -- as if James himself were trying to defeat all of Albion at the game of keeping a stiff upper lip.

Which is, I think, very much the case. Obviously James was not indifferent to questions of race. After all, he did spend the next few years writing the definitive study of how Toussaint L’Ouverture defeated of the European armies that tried to return white supremacy to Haiti. But his comments in Letters from London show a kind of studied indifference that is remarkable. He treats the decency of some white Britons, and the hostility of others, as the manifestation of something more basic, and also more interesting -- namely, British national character. (He would pursue a similar line of study upon arriving in the United States in 1938; after living in the Trotskyist underground for a dozen years, he wrote a study later published as American Civilization, seeking to define the New World personality through Marxist categories.)

It would be easy enough to frame this as a tritely ironic revcrsal: the colonial subject gazing, with barely concealed feelings of superiority, upon the customs of the imperial metropolis. Certain passages would support that reading. About one bigot, James writes: "There are millions like him all around you in London every day, the kind of person I would not walk five yards out of my way to meet, except for the sake of curiosity to find out what was in his Daily Express, cinema-fed mind."

But what complicates the picture is that James considered himself British down to the very depths: an "Afro-Saxon," as the saying goes. He had read Prospero’s books, while the racist moron on the subway is just Caliban with an umbrella and a bowler hat. History and empire have linked them, yet also driven a wedge between them. The effort to grapple with the contradictions implied by that situation would drive James’s thinking for the next several decades.

Shortly after the last of the essays in Letters from London appeared, James discovered Trotsky and Spengler, with their systematic critiques (from the left and the right respectively) of the civilization in which he found himself. He began to think of culture as part of the struggle for a world in which, as Marx put it, "the free development of all requires the free development of each."

It was, in short, the perfect formula for becoming a political and intellectual outsider. It brought no guarantee of anything but lasting marginality in the world’s affairs. If, almost fifteen years after his death, the name of C.L.R. James is known while his work itself remains unassimilated, that is perhaps a suitable measure of his success.