Chris Harman


C.L.R. James:
writer and revolutionary

(June 1989)

From Socialist Worker, 10 June 1989, p. 11.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

C.L.R. James died last week at the age of 88.

He was one of the most important Marxist thinkers to enter into political activity during the great crisis of the 1930s and his ideas continued to inspire people in Britain, the United States and his native West Indies right through to the 1980s.

James was born in Trinidad and moved to England in the early 1930s. He made his living from cricket, writing about it for the Manchester Guardian.

But concern about the oppression of his native land, still a British colony, led to intense political activity.

He worked alongside his fellow Trinidadian George Padmore and the future ruler of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, to build a ‘Pan-Africanist’ movement. The aim was to unite the various black peoples living under white colonial rule.

James’s political understanding soon went further than theirs.

He came to see the connection between colonial oppression in the Third World and the exploitation of the working class in the advanced countries.

His book The Black Jacobins – a brilliant study of the successful slave revolt that had freed Haiti from French rule 130 years earlier – showed how the struggle against slavery in the colony and the revolutionary struggle of the masses in France had depended on each other.

James was soon active in the small Trotskyist movement in Britain. His book, World Revolution, told of the rise of the revolutionary movement after 1917 and its betrayal by Stalin.


In 1938 he went to the United States as a full-time revolutionary, with the aim of deepening the influence of the revolutionary Socialist Workers Party on the struggle of American blacks.

He met Trotsky in Mexico and the discussions between the two on the struggle for black liberation remain of immense interest today.

The defeat of the upsurge of working class struggle in countries like Italy and France at the end of World War Two was followed by the division of the world into two apparently monolithic blocs, one led by the USA and one by Stalin’s USSR.

Genuine proponents of working class self-emancipation were everywhere isolated.

Demoralisation caused many to drop out of activity and others to throw in their lot with either East or West.

James refused to do this.

Using the pseudonym Johnson he wrote a series of books and pamphlets with the American revolutionary Raya Dunayevskaya (pseudonym Forest) and the French revolutionary Castoriadis (pseudonym Chaulieu and later Cardan).

These argued that state capitalism ruled in both the USSR and the United States, but that within it the seeds of a new revolutionary workers’ movement were growing.

This led them to give wholehearted support to the East German uprising of 1953 and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.

However the grouping around James reacted to the isolation of the genuine left by exaggerating the importance of small scale spontaneous struggles.


It portrayed them as an ‘invading socialist society’ which was quickly going to overwhelm the system.

James himself tended to worship every spontaneous upsurge of struggle, even when it was not based on the working class, and to endorse the claims of middle class leaders to be building a new, socialist society.

So he praised in turn Nkrumah in Ghana, Eric Williams in Trinidad, Castro in Cuba, Nyerere in Tanzania and even Mao Zedong in China.

When the black revolt took off in the USA in the 1960s he gave uncritical praise first to Martin Luther King and then to Stokely Carmichael, without pointing out how people needed to go far beyond their ideas if they were really to win.

This blunting of his old revolutionary insights led some of his later writings to have a semi-mystical strain to them.

It also led to him receiving enthusiastic praise from people whose own politics were far from revolutionary.

Yet James never abandoned the fundamental idea that had led him from Pan-Africanism to revolutionary socialism in the 1930s – that the mass of workers could emancipate themselves and, in doing so, the rest of humanity as well.

He denounced many of the Third World leaders he had once praised and would insist right to the end that black people had to look to alliances with white workers.

Last updated on 25 April 2015