Scott McLemee
C.L.R. James: A Biographical Introduction
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American Visions, April/May 1996

C.L.R. James' The Black Jacobins, first published in 1938, was a forbidden book in South Africa until the recent dismantling of apartheid. It's not hard to see why. James researched his account of Toussaint L'Ouverture and the Haitian slave uprising with meticulous care. It remains a masterpiece of historical scholarship, but the book was designed to be a weapon for revolutionary combat. James wrote it while active in the International African Service Bureau -- the organization founded by his childhood friend George Padmore, the godfather of Pan-Africanism. By narrating "the first successful slave revolt in history," he meant to provide a tool kit of ideas and information for future liberation movements. Apartheid's censors knew what they were doing when they banned the book.

Yet The Black Jacobins did find readers in South Africa. Copies were scarce and the potential audience was large, so people had to improvise. One circle of activists typed up key passages and distributed them in carbon copies. Another group tore James' thick book into clusters of a few pages, to be circulated a little at a time.

Members would study each fragment closely and then pass it on to the next eager reader. They doubtless memorized large parts of the book this way, while waiting for the next installment to reach them. Few writers ever find their work treated with such passionate intensity. Naturally, James was pleased to learn about his South African readers. The very ingenuity and seriousness with which they handled the book were proofs of a lesson James sought to teach, over and over again, throughout his work: In their efforts to free themselves, to reshape their world into a more livable place, people display a creative drive that now and then directs history into new courses.

After his death in London in 1989, tributes to James came from all corners of the African diaspora, and beyond. It is evidence of the scope of his life and work that, over the past half-dozen years, new books by and about James have been pouring off the presses.

And what an extraordinary range of ideas and experiences they represent. James produced fiction, political pamphlets, sports writing, detailed works of history, philosophical essays and untold thousands of deeply thoughtful letters. He lived in Trinidad, England and the United States and traveled throughout Europe and Africa, and each place left its mark in his work. Paul Robeson and Richard Wright were his friends; he discussed politics with Leon Trotsky and Martin Luther King; he had close, at times stormy, relationships with Eric Williams and Kwame Nkrumah, who would later become the leaders of Trinidad and Ghana, respectively. James' writing moved with grace and brilliance among the most diverse topics, finding links between the game of cricket and Aristotle's Poetics, and weaving together connections among Shakespeare's plays, Lenin's politics and the problems facing developing countries. To read James is an exercise in rediscovering the world -- and an invitation not only to reinterpret it, but also to change it.


Born in Trinidad in 1901, Cyril Lionel Robert James grew up thinking of himself as a black Englishman. His father was a schoolmaster; his mother, a great reader of British novels. A precocious boy, James picked up the books as she finished them By the age of 10, he had decided to become a writer. The young Nello (as he was nicknamed) also played cricket, developing an encyclopedic knowledge of the game's history. Although something of a rebel -- he spent as much time as possible on the playing field, to his parents' disgust -- James absorbed much of the Victorian spirit. Trinidad's population was mostly black, and his rare brushes with white racism left no real scars. Indeed, prejudice struck James as a violation of the best qualities of English culture: It "just wasn't cricket."

Only gradually did politics come to occupy his attention. While teaching at Queen's Royal College (Trinidad's leading educational institution), James concentrated on writing fiction and, it seems, on reading everything. By his 20s he was among the most prominent literary figures on the island. When one of his short stories received some attention abroad, James decided to try to make his way in the world as a writer. And so, in 1932, he departed for London. "The British intellectual," as he later put it, "was going to England."

More than 6 feet tall and strikingly handsome, widely read and well-spoken, James made quite an impression on the literary people he met in London. He soon found work reporting on cricket for the Manchester Guardian, and his essay presenting The Case for West Indian Self-Government was published in a series edited by Leonard and Virginia Woolf.

Yet in those years, James later recalled, his strictly literary ambitions disappeared. Politics took command. By 1934, he was active in the Trotskyist movement. British Communists learned to dread having to debate James, as he was precise and ferocious in denouncing Stalin's crimes. And through his old friend George Padmore, James became increasingly conscious of black struggles around the world. When the Italian fascists invaded Ethiopia in 1935, he helped organize the International African Friends of Ethiopia. He spent months in Paris, going through archives to study letters and reports from Haiti written during the slave uprising there in the 1790s. One product of his research was a play, Toussaint L'Ouverture (1936), which was performed in London to generally favorable reviews, with Paul Robeson in the title role.

It was a fruitful period. In addition to his cricket reporting and political organizing, James began to produce books at a remarkable pace. In 1936 he published Minty Alley, a novel about life in the slums of Trinidad. In 1937 came World Revolution, a scathing account of Communist policy under Stalin. And during 1938, while working with Padmore to launch the journal International African Opinion, James finished his masterpiece. The Black Jacobins combined Marxist analysis and a novelist's talent with the most detailed knowledge of L'Ouverture's role in the San Domingo revolt. James showed how the French and Haitian revolutions interacted and predicted that there would be similar uprisings in Africa during the years to come.

Not long after that book appeared, James decided to visit the United States for a brief lecture tour. As he traveled throughout the country, audiences, black and white, crowded to hear him. James could speak for hours without notes, quoting facts and documents from memory. Listeners sat, enraptured by his knowledge and skill. He decided to extend his visit. And then, sometime in 1939, C.L.R. James seemed almost to vanish from the face of the earth.


What happened? Over the next dozen years or so, James quit writing under his own name, and he stopped lecturing in public. He stayed on in the United States until 1953, when, at the height of McCarthyism, he was thrown out of the country. In the meantime, he lived "underground." He published countless articles and pamphlets under a variety of pseudonyms. He became, in short, a professional revolutionary.

Early during his visit, James had traveled to Mexico to talk with Leon Trotsky. In the course of their discussions, he began to apply some of the insights from The Black Jacobins to the situation of African-Americans. Contrary to what many white radicals thought, James believed that "the Negro represents potentially the most revolutionary section of the population," and he argued that black struggles did not require the leadership of the white labor movement.

Over the following decade, while active in various leftist organizations, James worked out the implications of this idea. For several months in 1941 and '42, he helped organize a mostly black group of sharecroppers in Missouri as they prepared to go on strike. He spent hours listening to industrial workers throughout the country. He studied American history and culture. And he wrote scores of articles for Marxist journals.

Along the way, James became friends with Richard Wright. He also began to write a play about Harriet Tubman, which he hoped might interest Ethel Waters.

But for the most part, James moved in the world of radical politics, developing his own interpretation of Marxism. Gradually breaking with Trotskyism, he began a close study of philosophy -- especially Hegel's vast and complex Science of Logic. A small circle of activists and intellectuals formed around him, called the Johnson-Forest Tendency. ("Johnson" was James' most frequent pseudonym).

Only during the past decade have scholars begun to appreciate the brilliance of James' theoretical work from this period. His Notes on Dialectics (1948) and American Civilization (1950) circulated in typewritten copies, while State Capitalism and World Revolution (1950) and his study of Herman Melville, Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways (1953), appeared in small editions that few readers ever saw. (In recent years, they have all been published and are available from bookstores.) These works project a bold vision of the drive of ordinary people to abolish exploitation-and to create a world where, in a phrase from Lenin that James liked, "every cook can govern."

In time James` activities won the attentions of the FBI. Declared a subversive and undesirable alien, James was arrested in 1952 and jailed for several weeks on Ellis Island. After being released, he delivered a well-received series of lectures at Columbia University in the spring of 1953. But that summer, his appeal for U.S. citizenship turned down, James returned to London.


James' forced departure from the United States was a turning point in his career. He had always been a cosmopolitan thinker, yet throughout the second half of his life, James became an ever more profoundly international figure. He moved among Europe, Africa and the Caribbean, writing, speaking and organizing like a revolutionary elder statesman-without-a-state.

In 1957, he met with Martin Luther King in London to discuss the Montgomery bus boycott. When his former student Eric Williams became the prime minister of Trinidad, James returned there to edit a newspaper and lecture. Younger African and West Indian intellectuals rediscovered his work. And during the late 1960s, when university students began demanding courses in black studies, U.S. authorities allowed him back into the country to teach. Throughout the 1970s, he lectured on numerous campuses, and for several years he was a professor at the University of the District of Columbia (then called Federal City College).

James remained a prolific writer well into his 80s, but the last book-length manuscript that he completed was Beyond a Boundary (1963). Considered one of the best books on the game of cricket ever publishedand so gracefully written that even baseball-centric Americans can read it with pleasure -- it limned a picture of life in Trinidad during the early years of the 20th century. Perhaps remembering his friend Richard Wright's harrowing childhood in Black Boy, James creates an almost idyllic image of the world in which he grew up. Boundary's treatment of the island's black middle class is at once critical and affectionate. "My grandfather went to church every Sunday morning at eleven o'clock," James writes, "wearing in the broiling sun a frock-coat, striped trousers and top hat, with his walking stick in hand, surrounded by his family, the underwear of the women crackling with starch. Respectability was not an ideal, it was an armour."


Revolutionary though he might be, James always remained something of a Victorian gentleman. Yet, eminently respectable as he was in his personal manners, his work as historian and thinker focused on the creative and disruptive forces at the bottom of society. "Ordinary working people in factories, mines, fields, and offices," he once wrote, "are rebelling every day in ways of their own invention ... Always the aim is to regain control over their own conditions of life and their relations with one another. Their strivings have few chroniclers."

James returned to this theme in countless articles and lectures, and many of the books published over the last two decades of his life were collections of such work. Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution (1977) and At the Rendezvous of Victory (1984) give perhaps the best overview of his thinking on PanAfricanist concerns. Spheres of Existence (1980) gathers James' cultural essays -- especially his work on literary and philosophical questions. Whether analyzing Shakespeare or Marcus Garvey, Hegel's philosophy or Toni Morrison's fiction, James kept his attention fixed on how social movements "from below" expressed themselves throughout history.

Settling down in London during the final decade of his life, James became a kind of sage: the ancient teacher, upon whom countless visitors called to pay their respects. In 1984, an interviewer from the Third World Book Review asked what he thought of a certain nickname admirers had given him. "When people call me the `Black Plato,"' James answered, "they mean to say that I have touched various subjects with a certain effect. But I am very much aware of the vast distance that lies between the original, seminal work of Plato and Aristotle and what I have been able to do at the present time. I don't like it, I don't dislike it. I just pay no attention to it."

That reply was unusually modest. But then, James could be confident that his work would survive. When he died in 1989, his body was returned for burial to Trinidad, the island of his birth. His tombstone is designed as a book, opened to a page inscribed with one of the most memorable passages from Beyond a Boundary:

"Times would pass, old empires would fall and new ones take their place, the relations of countries and the relations of classes had to change, before I discovered that it is not the quality of goods and utility which matters, but movement; not where you are or what you have, but where you have come from, where you are going, and the rate at which you are getting there."