Paul Foot

The question lingers on
[CLR James]

(July 1989)

From Socialist Worker, 1 July 1989.
Copyright © Estate of Paul Foot. Published on MIA with the permission of the Estate. Paul Foot Internet Archive ( 2007.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

I watched the Channel Four tribute last week to CLR James. It was presented by my friend Tariq Ali (he is a friend of mine but I, unhappily, am not a friend of his. He will not talk to me, ever since I wrote a review of his book which he said was patronising). It was typical of Tariq’s flair and push that he should have got so much time at such short notice on television for the great man.

Ever since I met the long, frail and trembling CLR James at Glasgow Central Station in 1963, and took him to a tiny meeting of Young Socialists where he spoke about the African National Revolution, he has been a special hero of mine.

He was one of the very few people who understood the dialectical significance of the game of cricket in general and of West Indian cricket in particular.

It would be insulting to CLR’s memory however not to challenge one part of the discussion. All five participants agreed, there can be no doubt about it, that CLR James’s chief hero in history was Lenin.

All at once agreed, and there can be no doubt about this either, that for the last 20 years of his life (at least) CLR James ‘rejected the theory of the vanguard party.’ At once the discussion moved off into other areas.


I wished the programme had been on video and I, like some celestial controller, had been able to stop it and redirect it.

For the crucial question here is surely this: why and how could such an inspired supporter of Lenin have rejected what was beyond dispute the central inspiration of Lenin’s political existence?

All his life, even when he was shipwrecked with a handful of bickering émigrés, Lenin disciplined his whole being to the forging of socialist organisation.

Ever since capitalist society was first challenged, its challengers have recognised the importance of such organisation.

The very earliest groups of working people in Britain who met together to oppose emerging capitalism called themselves Corresponding Societies, combinations, associations, all words which highlighted the joining together of people in common cause against their oppressors.

Nothing could be more obvious than that the strength and power of class society requires an equivalent strength and power to change it, and that on our side that strength and power depends upon socialists joining together and acting in common purpose.

The more centrally controlled and disciplined the ruling class, the more centrally controlled and disciplined must be its opponents.

In recent years it has been fashionable to criticise the notion of the ‘vanguard party’ as (here is that word again) ‘patronising.’

Yet everyone who expresses an opinion about political matters is engaging in a form of leadership. ‘I think this’ surely means ‘And you should think this too’ or it is quite useless.

Unless people express an opinion as a standard which they hope and want other people to follow, the opinion itself is frivolous. It has no relation to what should be the purpose of the opinion in the first place – to change the world.

Those who express opinions and hold views on their own, trusting to their own individualism and independence, are often more patronising than those who organise with others.

Their ‘freedom of expression’ is entirely untempered by the opinions and activities of others who agree with them, and they are therefore more (not less) likely to patronise the people for whom they speak.

It has always been a mystery to me that such an unequivocal and eloquent supporter of the Bolsheviks and the Jacobins as CLR James could, at the latter end of his life, be such an opponent of those who sought to organise themselves as the Jacobins and the Bolsheviks did.

On the few occasions I had the chance to argue with him I tried to get an answer to this conundrum. I never got one that even started to satisfy me.


Last updated on 24.7.2007