Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History

C.L.R. James (1901-1989)

The death of C.L.R. James in May 1989 brought to an end a remarkable life which embodied some of the distinctive movements of the twentieth century. An examination of the different facets of his career as an historian, political activist arid journalist, and a writer on art, literature and cricket, opens a window on the modern world. Two of its major currents, Marxism and Pan-Africanism, defined the substance of James’s work; but the particular quality of his approach was shaped by historical circumstances, the demands of time and place.

At the risk of oversimplification we could label the five main periods of James’s life as follows: 1901-32 Trinidad, the making of a colonial intellectual; 1932-38 Britain, Trotskyist and Pan-Africanist; 1938-53 America, Marxist theoretician and Black activist; 1953-66 Africa and the Caribbean, the struggle for independence; 1967-89 International, teacher and mentor.

James’s writings reflected this pattern, containing both the specific political problems he addressed at any one time and yet charting more general developments in his ideas and methods. Throughout his life, James was a lively and prominent contributor to debate, exploring the issues of the day largely through newspaper columns and internal discussion documents. These were the preparatory stages to his major statements which appeared as full-scale works towards the close of each phase of his career. It is not possible here to examine the substance of these texts, but only to situate them by sketching the broad contours of James’s life, and by highlighting the features of its successive phases.

Although James’s pre-war experiences in Britain and Europe were critical to his political formation, it is important to remember that when he left his native Trinidad in 1932, he was mature and educated, and widely read in history, literature anti the classics. Furthermore, his method and perspective on the world were already formed. Both were encapsulated in his understanding of cricket. His own active participation in the game, combined with an intensive study of its evolution and development, led James to see cricket as a metaphor for society (reflecting its structure, movement, personalities); and, at the core of its interpretation, lay an historical approach.

James’s youth was not marked by any obvious political interest, but he reached adulthood at a time of change and unrest in Trinidad’s colonial society. He was aware, in particular, of the growing agitation among West Indian servicemen returning from the First World War with new experiences and an exposure to revolutionary ideas. Their spokesman, Captain Cipriani, articulated the more general dissatisfactions with Crown Colony government and, during the 1920s, James followed his rise as Trinidad’s popular political leader.

At the same time James, a member of the island’s literary circle, was writing fiction which celebrated the vitality of ordinary men and women living in the urban slums or ‘barrackyards’. The themes and characters he chose, however, were not dictated by conscious political considerations or by an explicit desire for social realism. Rather, they grew out of the material available to him as a writer in Trinidad. Barrackyard life, vibrant and unexplored, was a creative source and a form of life native to the Caribbean. Through its discovery, James and his contemporaries began to break the hold of the English tradition over the subject matter of colonial writing.

In the spring of 1932 James left Trinidad in search of a career as a writer in London’s Bloomsbury. But he was soon embarked on a course different from the one he expected: “I arrived in England intending to make my way as a writer of fiction, but the world went political and I went with it.”

James’s first taste of radical politics came with his move to Nelson, the militant Lancashire textile town which employed his friend, Learie Constantine, as a professional cricketer. Here they collaborated on Constantine’s cricket memoirs and James completed and published The Life of Captain Cipriani. It was abridged a year later by Leonard Woolf as The Case for West Indian Self-Government. Its appearance marked the end of the first phase of James’s life, one firmly situated in the formative conditions of his Caribbean youth.

James learned a great deal from his stay in Lancashire, witnessing the day-to-day struggles and becoming familiar with the pragmatic political outlook of its working class communities. It was in Nelson, too, that he first became acquainted with Marxism.

Later he joined the Trotskyist movement and he focused his attention on the question of the revolution in Europe. This work taught him, above all, the importance of international working class collaboration, and it lay at the heart of his response to the Abyssinian crisis of 1935-36. The equivocation, however, of the leaders of the organised labour movement on the issue of workers’ sanctions against Italy came as a harsh lesson to James, and he expressed it clearly at the time:

Africans must win their own freedom. Nobody will win it for them. They need co-operation, but that co-operation must be with the revolutionary movement in Europe and Asia.

The Abyssinian crisis turned James decisively towards Africa. In addition it gave focus to a number of general questions concerning leadership and the masses in revolutionary situations, and the relationship between European powers and the colonial world, which were beginning to crystallise in his study of the 1791 San Domingo slave revolution.

James’s work on these issues was further strengthened by the arrival in London, in 1936, of George Padmore. Together they established, with other activists, the African Service Bureau, an organisation dedicated to the cause of colonial freedom. This initiative lay firmly within the tradition of immigrant radicalism which was a distinctive part of British political life – a tradition of activists from abroad who had advocated general ideals (such as colonial emancipation) whilst inserting themselves into local political struggles.

James’s approach to politics was distinctive in two ways. First of all, in contrast to many of his colleagues who ventured into history only after reading Marx, James was steeped in the history and literature of Europe before he studied the principal works of the Marxist tradition. His historical perspective had been established in the West Indies and the method he developed through the study of cricket marked every aspect of his career in Britain. Secondly, James rejected the widely held view of radicals that the revolution had to take place first in Europe; only then would its leaders be able to grant colonial subjects their freedom. He knew from history and from his own experiences the great potential of the so-called ‘backward peoples’.

The major texts of James’s years in Britain (World Revolution, The Black Jacobins, The History of Negro Revolt) all appeared towards the end of his stay. They reflected the direction in which his ideas were moving, specifically his attempt to integrate the struggles of black and colonial peoples into the revolutionary concerns of European Marxism. They also contained the seeds of James’s future work, work both practical and theoretical, which he brought to maturity during his 15 year sojourn in America.

Upon his arrival in the United States, at the end of 1938, James undertook an extensive speaking tour for the Socialist Workers Party. He addressed audiences on the approaching war in Europe, and on the Negro problem. These issues formed the basis for his discussions with Trotsky in Coyoacan, Mexico and they defined James’s concerns for over a decade.

In order to clarify his position as a Marxist on the key issues raised by the two questions, James embarked on philosophical study, whilst engaging in intensive political activity, especially in the black communities.

The more deeply he penetrated into the lives of America’s blacks, both the industrial workers of the northern cities and the agricultural labourers in the south, the more certain James became of the key rôle they would play in America’s future. Their struggle, founded in the history and day-to-day experience of a stark inequality, had an independent vitality and developing organic perspective of its own. For James the black question was the American question. It encapsulated the central contradictions of a society whose original ideals of freedom and equality were, in the twentieth century, crushed by the coercive power of industrial capitalism.

The other main strand of James’s American work was stimulated initially by the confusion in the SWP following tine signing of the Hitler-Stalin pact in 1939.

James, with a handful of collaborators, most notably Raya Dunayevskaya (a Russian expert) and Grace Lee (a student of German philosophy) established the Johnson-Forest Tendency, which worked within Max Shachtman’s breakaway Workers Party. They quickly discovered that in examining the nature of the Soviet Union and its relationship to the development of capitalism, they were drawn deeply into questions of philosophy, specifically into examining the Hegelian dialectic.

James’s theoretical investigations and political activism fed directly into each. other, and the results were presented in a series of publications. Among the most important were The Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Problem ire the United States (1948), Notes on Dialectics (1948) and State Capitalism and World Revolution (1950).

In establishing an independent Marxist position based on the work of Lenin, James had reached the conclusion that Trotskyism was not just wrong in its ideas, but fundamentally wrong in its method. He broke decisively with the movement; he was also ready to break with the old European forms of political life, which he had come to see as irrelevant to America, and an incubus on world development.

James had long been engaged in the project of seeking to understand American society, studying its literature and history, but also paying serious attention to the popular arts. He read detective novels and comic strips, he watched B movies, and followed the careers of Hollywood film stars. He became a ‘neighbourhood man’, observing closely the daily lives of men and women, their social relations, their living space, the routines of work and leisure. There are few hints of this enormous project in James's voluminous contributions to the debates within Trotskyism during the 1940s; but in 1950 he sketched out his ideas in a manuscript of almost 400 pages.

His essay on American civilisation 1 represents, in style and content, the crux of James’s development as a political thinker and activist. It stands between the major theoretical works of the 1930s and 1940s and the broader perspective of his mature years.

Here he abandoned the European model of intellectual leadership, party politics and culture (‘old bourgeois civilisation’) and situated himself in the New World with an original conception of political life. He found in America the conditions for a fundamental revolution in human relations, of a size and scope commensurate with the developments in the organisation of production. In seeking to integrate lives fragmented by the division of labour, the mass of the American people would create new forms of political association and expression. Politics could no longer be separate from everyday life.

The uncertainty of James’s position in America, however, forced him to abandon work on this draft. In 1952, interned on Ellis Island as he awaited deportation, he wrote his book on Herman Melville – Mariners, Renegades and Castaways. In its themes and preoccupations it was clearly taken from the more ambitious and comprehensive study of America he had already begun. His concern was with no less than the conditions of survival of modern civilisation.

Both works may be understood as the first volume of James's autobiography, not just because together they contain the fullest statement of his political position as he reached the peak of his mental powers, but also because they have at their core the excavation of the intellectual tradition to which James was so closely bound. Their writing cleared the way for the second autobiographical volume. It went further back, exploring the formative conditions of James’s Caribbean upbringing, and it appeared a decade later as Beyond the Boundary.

After his expulsion from the United States in 1953, James found himself adrift. He had broken with the organised revolutionary movement in which he had worked for 20 years; and he had been forcibly separated from the vitality and expansiveness of the New World.

Pan-Africanism was an important focus for James in the years 1953-66, the era of decolonisation. He devoted much of his time to addressing problems which faced the newly-independent countries in Africa and the Caribbean.

The writing of Beyond A Boundary became his other major intellectual project. In the context of the New World, James had moved beyond the European tradition with its separation of politics and culture, art and entertainment, intellectuals and the common people. Beyond A Boundary's broad imaginative sweep gave expression to this newly-found freedom.

In the middle of writing this book James accepted an invitation to return to Trinidad as editor of a party newspaper. The People’s National Movement was led by Dr Eric Williams, a former pupil of James, and was set to lead the island to independence. James returned to the Caribbean in 1958, at a time when it was alive with political debate and when many of the unresolved tensions, released by changes in society, found expression on and around the cricket field. He was, at once, the same and a different man from the young, educated, colonial intellectual who, some 26 years earlier, had left Trinidad in search of a literary career abroad. This was the island of his formation and Beyond A Boundary was securely rooted there; but the quality of his analysis drew on the decades of intensive political work in Europe and America. Furthermore, it was an autobiography for reasons more profound.

In James’s mind the completion of the book and the imminent independence of the Caribbean islands were intimately connected. He sought through cricket to integrate history with personal biography, to ‘see’ himself, and, in this way, he merged his unique vision of humanity with the historical moment which brought forth a new society.

James never retreated from this vision, from his belief in the creativity and capacity of the Caribbean people; but all around him political and economic conditions thwarted its realisation. He left Trinidad on the eve of its independence and Beyond A Boundary was published a year later in 1963, to great critical acclaim. It was his last major original work, representing as it did the completion of a personal journey which had carried him from a tiny outpost of the British Empire into the centre of world politics.

In the final phase of his life, 1967-89, James travelled widely, and wrote essays and lectured to audiences in Europe, America, Africa and the Caribbean. He continued to explore the themes which had been established during his creative years, and which constitute his original work.

James was working until his death. He was preparing several manuscripts for publication and he continued to receive many visitors at his London home. His ease with people of different backgrounds and experiences, his interest in the details of their lives, and his keen sense of their historical place laid the basis for exchanges of great range and depth. For others, engagement with James's ideas and method had developed through a study of his writings. Their rich legacy is the tangible evidence of James’s profound and enquiring humanity.

Anna Grimshaw


1. This work, to be published shortly as The Struggle For Happiness, is being edited with an introduction by Anna Grimshaw and Keith Hart. The present essay is drawn substantially from that introduction.

Updated by ETOL: 7.7.2003