David Widgery

A Meeting with
Comrade James

(June 1980)

Source: Urgent Tasks, No. 12, Summer 1981.
Originally published: New Society, 26 June 1980.
Transcription: Christian Høgsbjerg.
Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

David Widgery is a frequent contributor to New Society, from the June 26, 1980 issue of which this article is reprinted.

“People are treating me with far greater concern than before,” C.L.R. James grimaces. “It’s very tiring.” James has his feet up in room 384 of the Mayfair Hotel. Beside him lies a John Berger paperback, a brown cardboard folder of manuscript, his wheelchair and a ham sandwich plastered with English mustard. “My feet are tired but my tongue is not. I do not intend to give in.” He talks with a rare passion and erudition: of bolshevism, of Caribbean politics, of calypso, Sartre, cricket and his beloved Uffizi gallery. His speech is as fresh and pungent as his sandwich.

To the best of my ability, I have attempted not to hero-worship this man who, if Marxists believed in such things, would be the greatest living Marxist. And failed. For my generation, James is the essence of political legend: organizing the Africa Bureau with George Padmore, bearding Trotsky in Coyoacán, organizing sharecroppers in Missouri, hailing Nkrumah as the Black Lenin in Accra, wandering into a Havana revolutionary congress with a volume of Michelangelo plates. In his wiry, eight-decade-young frame is the historical eloquence of E.P. Thompson, the cricketing connoisseurship of John Arlott, the revolutionary ardour of Tony Cliff and the preciousness of John Berger, all mixed up with a wit and a way with paradox which is entirely West Indian.

The outlaw James had better be resigned to his eminence. The three volumes published this week by Allison & Busby bring together a body of work previously passed from hand to hand as mimeos, photostats and battered American paperbacks. One volume is a collection of “notes” on Hegel, Marx and Lenin; two more bring together stories and essays. (A final selection of essays is promised, and the headstone, a volume of autobiography, is on the way.) But the centerpiece of the present triptych of publications is The Black Jacobins, an account of Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo revolution, which James wrote in Brighton in 1937. The extraordinary narrative power and analytic intensity of this well-known but widely unread book is famous. But James’s motive for writing it is not. “I decided,” he told me, “that I was going to write the story of some Blacks who were not persecuted and sat upon and oppressed, but who did something.” The book is not only a pioneering exposition of Black pride but is also stamped with James’s head-on collision with Marxism.

Cyril Lionel Robert James was born near Port of Spain in 1901. He was the son of a teacher, won a scholarship to Queen’s Royal College school (30 years later, V.S. Naipaul went there, too), and then became a schoolteacher himself. He also began playing club cricket and writing stories. It was Learie Constantine, the Trinidadian cricketer, then playing in the Lancashire League, who suggested James should come over to England.

He arrived from Trinidad in 1932, equipped with an exceptional grounding in the European classics. But at Constantine’s home in the small Pennine town of Nelson, he was presented with volume one of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution and Spengler’s Decline of the West. “It was then necessary to read the relevant volumes of Stalin. And, of course, I had to read Lenin in order to trace back the quarrel. And thereby I reached volume one of Das Kapital and The 18th Brumaire of Marx himself.”

In a decade in which Stalinist mythology dominated the left, James came to his own conclusion: “I realized the Stalinists were the greatest liars and corrupters of history there ever were. No one convinced me of this. I convinced myself. But having come to this conclusion, I wanted to meet some Trotskyists.”

He eventually tracked down this endangered species in Golders Green, noting with some amusement that “I was much more familiar with the political material than the people who ran the group.”

As disaster overwhelmed the German left, and Stalin switched to the desperate alliance-mongering of the Popular Front, James – now the editor of the Revolutionary Socialist League’s paper, Fight – made regular clandestine visits to the Paris exile grouping of revolutionaries around Trotsky. “They were very serious days,” James admonishes, inflecting the adjective “serious” as only an old-time Trotskyist can. “There was a German boy very active in our movement. One day we found him at the bottom of Seine.”

Trotskyism Repressed

James was, with D.D. Harber, the British delegation to the founding conference of the Trotskyist Fourth International in 1938. This tiny body was established with the hope that, in the holocaust to come, a clear-sighted International might find a way through the chaos. But Trotsky and, effectively, Trotskyism succumbed to the terrible repression.

In his last years, the Old Man blazed with political imagination, intrigue and epistles, as if beaming out his political SOS. James was duly summoned to Trotsky’s fortress in Mexico City. I have read their transcribed discussions and they give a rare glimpse of the Great Exile debating with an intellectual equal. “Although we disagreed, I was tremendously impressed,” James recalls. “Trotsky started with the analysis – international, political, philosophical. But the action, the activity, always followed. I got a glimpse of what bolshevism of the old school meant.” James had been lured to North America by the Trotskyist, James P. Cannon – some say to remove a “troublesome” element in British Trotskyist politics. And in America, James soon found himself at odds with the orthodoxy, in the same way that Cliff in London and Cardan in Paris were to break with official Trotskyism.

James faced another crossroads. He had friends and, by now, a good job as a cricket correspondent in London. To remain in America and work through his disagreements with Trotskyism was a commitment to ten years of intellectual work. But James accepted the commitment and once again kept his rendezvous with history.

He helped to develop a theory of global state-capitalism. He rejected the bolshevik concept of a vanguard party and emphasized shopfloor organization as the seed of the new society. This meant rediscovering the Young Marx. It is this necessary reshaping of the Marxist ingredients which is presented in Notes on Dialectics, one of the reprinted volumes. James reckons it is “one of the most important pieces that I have done. I’m waiting to see what people are going to say about it.”

The book was “written in Reno when I was seeing about a divorce.” It represents the condensation of one of the remarkable political collaborations of modern times: James’s political and intellectual prowess, Raya Dunayevskaya’s understanding of the Russian material, and Grace Lee’s German studies. It is written with a fearsome intensity, calling out names and ferociously bashing down the arguments. It is Marxist philosophy at red heat and ought to be read by those tepid academics who at present monopolize the science in Britain.

The making of C.L.R. James is also presented in the beautifully edited collection of essays which, with Edward Thompson’s recent writings, will do a great deal to revive the fortune of the genre. They demonstrate the sweep, drive and attack of James’s Marxism. They move from early fiction, through polemic against racism, to the critical essays he wrote under so many Trotskyist pseudonyms on the literature of Shakespeare, Melville and Mailer. (In the early years of New Society, he wrote on both West Indians and cricket; but those articles are not collected here.)

And James has as good an ear as his eye. He writes beautifully in these essays about the Mighty Sparrow, Trinidad’s most famous calypsoan, whom he describes “as the most intelligent and alert person I met in the Caribbean,” and with great feeling about the young Paul Robeson, with whose Moscow-line politics he so fundamentally differed (though he and Robeson appeared together in the 1930’s, at the Westminster Theatre, in a dramatized version of Toussaint’s story). We agreed to disagree about reggae but James pays tribute to the tremendous effectiveness of Rasta music: “The Rastafari are leftists, with no particular programme. But their critique of everything the British left behind, and those Blacks who follow it, is very sophisticated.”

James came back to England after the Second World War, and remarried. He now divides his time between London and the West Indies, with interludes as, for example, a visiting professor at United States universities or colleges.

When I saw him, he was just back from Kingston, Jamaica, where “naturally, I had talks with Manley. But the crisis in the Caribbean is not the problem of the capacity of the individual leaders: it’s the tremendous mess the imperialists left them in. What is happening in Kingston today is precisely what happened in Chile under Allende. The same procedures are being carried out: de-stabilization, economic manipulation, sabotage, the strategy of tension. And Seaga [the Jamaican opposition leader] promises everything but will bring nothing.”

James now plans to return to Trinidad as a guest of the oilfield workers’ union. “This organization is the most powerful political creation of the people of Trinidad and Tobago since the abolition of slavery. It is not that some intellectuals have got hold of it. It has been made by the people themselves.” James, the Black Cassandra, had sent a public telegram of warning to the young left-winger, Walter Rodney, two months before his assassination in Guyana last month. There is pain, but not disbelief, in his face as he remembers his young friend. One is reminded just how many political deaths James has had to witness, grieve and endure.

I retain important reservations about James’s Leninist libertarianism. He has been insufficiently consistent in applying his own criteria for socialist self-emancipation to Nkrumah, Castro and other revolutionary nationalists. His devastating critique of “vanguard” parties – those toy bolsheviks who ape and misunderstand Lenin’s politics – is in danger of writing off altogether the need for the sinews of socialist organization. But this is very small beer beside one’s respect, admiration and affection for a revolutionary intransigent who inhabits both classical and Marxist culture like a familiar home. He moves from ancient Greece, to the Detroit auto plants, and then to Florence, in as many sentences.

Hitler, Stalin, Vietnam

Liberal reviewers of his earlier collections of essays, The Future in the Present (published in 1977), found it hard to conceal a certain surprise that such intelligence and such compassion could issue from such a committed Marxist. But this is not remarkable at all. James’s excellence is because of his political vantage point, not despite it. “I have seen nothing,” James states firmly, “to shift me from the Marxist view of the world I adopted in 1934. I have watched nothing but the decline of this capitalist society. I have seen the First War, Hitler, Stalin, the Gulag, Vietnam. And now do I think Carter and Ronald Reagan and Mrs. Thatcher are going to fix anything?” He waves contempt softly about the bedroom. “And it would seem to me that all this frantic manoeuvring in the Labour Party and the trade unions is once again to keep the workers in order.”

Then his voice lowers again, and hangs suspended, as if addressing an auditorium. “More and more people, especially Black people, are alert. They reject the political choices offered them and are looking for a new way out of the mess. They are the ones who are now turning to Marx and Lenin to see if they have something to say.”

They should also be turning to C.L.R. James, who has already answered some of the questions events have yet to pose.

Last updated on 21 September 2019