C.L.R. James: A Revolutionary Vision for the 20th Century

by Anna Grimshaw

C.L.R. James died in May 1989. His death coincided with the explosion of popular forces across China and eastern Europe which shook some of the most oppressive political regimes in human history. These momentous events, calling into question the structure of the modern world order, throw into sharp relief the life and work of one of this century's most outstanding figures. For James was pre-eminently a man of the twentieth century. His legacy reflects the scope and diversity of his life's work, the unique conditions of particular times and places; and yet at its core lies a vision of humanity which is universal and integrated, progressive and profound.

James's distinctive contribution to the understanding of civilization emerged from a world filled with war, division, fear, suppression and unprecedented brutality. He himself had never underestimated the depth of the crisis which faced modern humanity. In James's view, it was fundamental. It was part and parcel of the process of civilization itself, as the need for the free and full development of the human personality within new, expanded conceptions of social life came up against enhanced powers of rule from above, embodied in centralized, bureaucratic structures which confined and fragmented human capacity at every level. This theme, what James later called the struggle between socialism and barbarism, was the foundation of his life's work. In the early Caribbean phase, it was implicit in his depiction of character and society through fiction and cricket writing; later it became politically focused in his active engagement with the tradition of revolutionary Marxism; until eventually, as a result of his experience of the New World, it became the expansive and unifying theme by which James approached the complexity of the modern world.

C.L.R. James spent his last years in Brixton, south London. He lived simply and quietly in a small room filled with books, music and art. His television set was usually switched on and it stood in the centre of the floor. James recreated a whole world within that cramped space. It was here, too, that he received visitors, those people who sought him out for his practical political advice, for the developed historical perspective and range of his analysis; but, above all, for the sheer vitality and humanity of his vision. From my desk in the corner of that Brixton room I would watch his eyes grow bright and his face become sharp and eager as he responded to questions, moving always with imagination and ease, from the concrete details of particular situations into broader, historical and philosophical issues. Frequently he surprised visitors by asking them detailed questions about themselves, their backgrounds, experiences, education, work, absorbing the information, as he had done throughout his life, as a fundamental part of his outlook on the world. At other times, James retreated; and I watched him sitting in his old armchair, his once powerful frame almost buried beneath a mountain of rugs, completely absorbed in his reading, pausing occasionally only to scribble or exclaim in the margins of the book.

Gradually I became familiar with the different elements of James's method which underlay his approach to the world and left a distinctive mark on all his writing. First of all, James had a remarkable visual sense. He watched everything with a very keen eye; storing images in his memory for over half a century, of distinctive personalities and particular events, which he wove into his prose with the skill and sensitivity of a novelist. Although his passion for intellectual rigour gave a remarkable consistency to the themes of his life's work, his analyses were never confined. He was always seeking to move beyond conventional limitations in his attempt to capture the interconnectedness of things and the integration of human experience.

I. TRINIDAD: 1901-1932

James was the first to acknowledge that the essential features of his perspective had been moulded in the context of his Caribbean childhood and youth. He was born in Trinidad on 4 January 1901; his parents were part of a distinctive generation of blacks--the generation which followed slave emancipation and whose contribution shaped profoundly the future of those small island societies. James's father was a schoolteacher; his mother was, as he described her in Beyond A Boundary, ". . . a reader, one of the most tireless I have ever met." The opening page of James's classic book revealed the major influences at work: "Our house was superbly situated, exactly behind the wicket. A huge tree on one side and another house on the other limited the view of the ground, but an umpire could have stood at the bedroom window. By standing on a chair a small boy of six could watch practice every afternoon and matches on Saturdays . . . From the chair also he could mount on to the window-sill and so stretch a groping hand for the books on top of the wardrobe. Thus early the pattern of my life was set."

Not only did James, through watching, playing and studying cricket, develop at a precociously early age the method by which he later examined all other social phenomena; but also, as a boy, he had responded instinctively to something located much deeper in human experience. Cricket was whole. It was expressive in a fundamental way of the elements which constituted human existence--combining as it did spectacle, history, politics; sequence/tableau, movement/stasis, individual/society.

The importance of literature in James's formation also stemmed from its resonance with his intuitive grasp of an integrated world. James's "obsession" with the novels of Thackeray, particularly Vanity Fair, was a decisive part of this developing awareness, and it fed directly into his close observations of the personality in society. He absorbed, too, what may inadequately be called the politics of Thackeray, that sharp satire by which the novelist exposed the petty pretensions and frustrated ambition of middle-class British society. But, more than anything else, James recognised early that literature offered him a vision of society, a unique glimpse of the human forces and struggles which animated history.

James, as a boy growing up in a small colonial society, absorbed everything that European civilization offered to him. He immersed himself in its history and literature, in its classical foundations, in its art and music; but, at the same time he rebelled against his formal schooling, the authority of Queen's Royal College, the island's premier institution, and its British public school masters. He was, as he said many times, "a bright boy"; but he was determined to go his own way and to establish himself independently in the world.

There was a similar mixture of classical and innovative features in the early stories which marked the beginning of James's writing career. Aside from his growing local reputation as a cricket reporter, James had begun, during the 1920s, to write fiction. It was in the style of the novels and short stories of the metropolitan writers, and yet its subject matter, barrackyard life, was new and authentically Caribbean. James was drawn to the vitality of backstreet life, particularly to the independence and resourcefulness of its women. It became the creative source for his first published pieces.

La Divina Pastora (1927) and Triumph (1929) establish James's potential as a novelist. Moreover they reveal the foundation of James's imaginative skill in his close observation of the raw material of human life. This closeness to the lives of ordinary men and women was something James consciously developed; but he never shook off his sense of being an outsider, of looking on rather than being a participant in the vibrancy of the barrackyard communities. The early fiction was marked by the memorable characters James created, his stories woven from the rich images he had stored in his mind's eye, the prose brimming with wit and satire as he caught the sounds of the street in his dialogue. These elements he fused into subtle and carefully-crafted narratives.

A technique James used on more than one occasion was to re-work stories which he had heard or which had been told to him. He was particularly fascinated by tales in which the line between the real and the mysterious was blurred, for it was here he recognised that the imagination had greatest scope and opened up to both reader and writer an area of knowledge beyond the limits of the familiar world. Although his life took a different course after his departure from Trinidad in 1932, James never lost his perspective on life as a novelist nor his sense of the strangeness of human experience.

II. BRITAIN: 1932-1938

James sailed to England at the age of 31 with the intention of becoming a novelist. It was a journey many undertook from the colonies. Some sought education abroad, particularly entry into the professions of law and medicine; others were simply hungry for the experiences of a bigger world than the one which circumscribed the familiar society of their youth. For James, an educated black man, the move to England was critical if he was to realise his literary ambitions. He was already a published author. Furthermore he was mature, and confident that his early life in the Caribbean had equipped him with the essential outlook and skills to make his way in the metropolis.

The developed sense James had of himself was conveyed in the first pieces he wrote after his arrival in England--nowhere more strikingly than in the account of the Edith Sitwell meeting he attended in Bloomsbury. Here James again reminded his readers in the Caribbean of his talent as a novelist; but it is much more than that. James, with his fine characterisation, sense of drama and sly wit, set the scene for the encounter between the doyenne of English literary life and the colonial, newly arrived from an island which most of the English had difficulty in locating. As James often remarked, the people he met were generally astonished by his command of the language (adding, usually with a wry grin, that it would have been more astonishing if he hadn't mastered it); but it was his comprehensive and detailed knowledge of European civilization, its art, history, literature and music, which caught the intellectuals, not least Miss Sitwell, by surprise.

The substance of James's exchange with Edith Sitwell, the question of poetic form, offers a glimpse of the early ideas about creativity and technique which James continued to develop over many years. His comments here suggested that he was generally hostile to the innovations of the modern school, particularly given the prominence of form over "genuine poetic fire"; but he worked much more intensively at this relationship, particularly its historical dimensions, within the broader context of his engagement with revolutionary politics. Ironically, though, the commitment James made to a political career meant that he never acknowledged publicly, until much later, the central place of this project in his life's work.

James spent a good deal of his first year in England living in Nelson, Lancashire with his Trinidadian friend, the cricketer, Learie Constantine. Working closely together on Constantine's memoirs, their friendship deepened and they forged a strong political bond around the issue of independence for the West Indies. James's document on this question, much of it drafted before he left Trinidad, was first published with Constantine's help by a small Nelson firm. Later, an abridged form appeared in Leonard Woolf's pamphlet series as The Case for West Indian Self-Government (1933).

James's examination of the colonial question had initially focused upon a prominent local figure, Captain Cipriani, whose career he analysed as reflective of more general movements among the people of the Caribbean. The shortened version, however, was not biographical, but concise and factual. It outlined conditions in Trinidad--the population, the social divisions, the form of government--for an audience whose knowledge was severely limited; and yet in its quiet, satirical tone, it was profoundly subversive. James's sharp observations of the cringing hypocrisy and mediocrity among those holding position in colonial society was strongly reminiscent of the style of his favourite novelists, Thackeray and Bennett. This was not surprising, given that his essay, The Case for West Indian Self-Government, was rooted in the early phase of James's life; thereafter, his approach to the colonial question was transformed (shown clearly in his polemical piece, Abyssinia and the Imperialists) as he became swept up in the political turmoil of pre-war Europe.

The impression James made in English literary circles had, from the beginning, been promising. His job as a cricket reporter on the Manchester Guardian increased his public profile, helping him, at first, to publicise the case for West Indian independence; but soon James was swimming in much stronger political currents. His experience of living in Lancashire had exposed him to the industrial militancy of working people. It was also during this time that James began to study seriously the writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky; and the response of his Nelson friends to his developing political ideas acted as a useful reminder of the deeply rooted radicalism in the lives of ordinary men and women. He was made aware, too, of the constant conflict between their pragmatic political sense and developed perspective on the world and the positions taken by their so-called leaders. This division marked James deeply, establishing a creative tension in his own political work for the rest of his life.

James's move to London in 1933 marked the beginning of his career as a leading figure in the Trotskyist movement. His approach to the questions of revolutionary politics acquired a distinctive stamp through his attempt to integrate the struggles of the colonial areas into the European revolutionary tradition. The Ethiopian crisis of 1936 was a turning point, as James was forced to confront the equivocation of the British labour movement in the face of imperialist aggression in Africa. His essay, Abyssinia and the Imperialists (1936), was an early acknowledgement of the importance of an independent movement of Africans and people of African descent in the struggle for freedom. It was a position James developed more fully during the second half of the 1930s, particularly through his close collaboration with George Padmore in the International African Service Bureau. But James also drew upon his extensive historical research into the 1791 San Domingo revolution.

The slave revolution led by Toussaint L'Ouverture raised very concretely the question James was seeking to address in his revolutionary politics--not just the nature and course of revolution itself, the changing relationship between leaders and the people; but the dynamic of the struggles situated at the peripheries and those located in the centre. It was a question which turned up in different forms throughout James's career--at times it was posed as the relationship between the proletariat of the imperialist nations and the indigenous populations; at others, as the connection between the struggles of different sections of a single national population.

Since James's arrival in England, he had been actively working on a book about the San Domingo revolution. In 1936 he decided to produce a play, Toussaint L'Ouverture, from his drafted manuscript, casting Paul Robeson in the title role. It was a magnificent part for Robeson, given the severe limits he found as a black man seeking dramatic roles; but there were other political considerations which lay behind James's decision to stage the play at London's Westminster Theatre. It was planned as an intervention in the debates surrounding the Ethiopian crisis.

James presented to his audience a virtually forgotten example from the past--of slaves, uneducated and yet organised by the mechanism of plantation production itself, who, in the wake of the French revolution, rose against their masters and succeeded not only in winning their freedom; but, in going on to defeat the might of three colonial powers, secured their victory through independence. At the centre of this outstanding struggle in revolutionary history was the figure of Toussaint L'Ouverture. He was the natural focus for a dramatic account of these tumultuous events; and James's play focused upon his rise and fall as leader of the slaves.

Drama was a form for which James had a particular feel. His lifelong interest in Shakespeare was based on the dramatic quality of the work; and James recognised that theatre provided the arena in which to explore "political" ideas as refracted through human character. It was through the juxtaposition of personality and events that James sought to highlight some of the broader historical and political themes raised by the San Domingo revolution. He hoped to make his audience aware that the colonial populations were not dependent upon leadership from Europe in their struggle for freedom, that they already had a revolutionary tradition of their own; and, as James later made explicit, he wrote his study of the 1791 slave revolution with the coming upheavals of Africa in mind.

The story of Toussaint involved his clash with other remarkable figures of the time, Napoleon, Dessalines, Henri Christophe; but it was equally formed by his relationship with the largely anonymous mass of black slaves. James acknowledged their centrality in the opening of the play. The disappearance of the slaves, however, and James's increasing focus on personalities gradually undermined the vitality and drama of the work. This was something which James, aware of his limitations as a dramatist, was the first to admit; but in many ways, too, it was no accident, for it reflected his particular interpretation of Toussaint's failure as a revolutionary leader.1

James remained firmly convinced of the effectiveness of drama as a medium for exploring what he considered to be the key political questions--the relationship between individual and society, the personality in history. Later, in 1944 when he was planning to write a second play based on the life of Harriet Tubman, he recognised the difficulties inherent in such a project:

The play will represent a conflict between slaves and slave-owners, an exemplification of the age-old conflict between the oppressed and oppressors. It will, therefore, be of exceptional interest in the world of today and particularly of tomorrow. . . . Now the trouble with all such plays written by both amateurs (99%) and talented playwrights (1%) is that either they know the history and the politics, etc., and write a political tract or they write something full of stage-craft, but with no understanding of history and of politics. Politics is a profession. Only people who know about politics can write about it. Politics is made by people, people who live for politics, but who hate, love, are ambitious, mean, noble, jealous, kind, cruel. And all these human passions affect their politics. . . . That is true but that is the appearance. But the essence of the thing is different. Political and social forces change the circumstances in which people live. . . . Now the job is to translate the economic and political forces into living human beings, so that one gets interested in them for what they are as people. If that is not done, then you will have perhaps a good history, good politics, but a bad play.2

James wrote both the play, Toussaint L'Ouverture, and his book, The Black Jacobins (1938), while he was an active member of the Trotskyist movement. His analysis was deeply marked by his particular political allegiance, though a number of the ideas central to his interpretation of the 1791 slave revolution raised, implicitly, a challenge to certain assumptions which were commonplace on the revolutionary Left. First of all, he cast doubt on the assumption that the revolution would take place first in Europe, in the advanced capitalist countries, and that this would act as a model and a catalyst for the later upheavals in the underdeveloped world. Secondly, there were clear indications that the lack of specially-trained leaders, a vanguard, did not hold back the movement of the San Domingo revolution. These differences were exacerbated by James's study of the Communist International, World Revolution (1937).

The problem James, and many others, faced in the 1930s was to define their position as revolutionary Marxists opposed to the Stalinism of Moscow and its British wing, the Communist Party. Trotsky, one of the great figures of the Russian revolution but persecuted and forced into exile after Lenin's premature death, became the focus for this opposition; though what he symbolised, in the struggle against Stalin, was often more important to people like James than their commitment to Trotskyism as such.

Europe's political landscape had been transformed by the Russian revolution. The question of the nature of the Soviet Union dominated debate among intellectuals and activists as the world drew closer to another war, raising again the spectre of revolution in its aftermath. For James and his associates, grouped in small factions operating independently of (and often in opposition to) the organised labour movement, it was imperative to document Stalin's betrayal of the fundamental revolutionary principles upon which the Soviet Union had been founded. World Revolution was such an attempt. James relied largely on secondary sources, gathered from across Europe, to build a devastating case. At the core of his interpretation lay Stalin's 1924 pronouncement, "Socialism in One Country"; for at a stroke the international character of the revolutionary movement was undermined and the fate of the fragile new Workers' State was severed from the organisation of the socialist revolution in other parts of the world. The consequences were far-reaching; not just in the barbarities Stalin perpetrated domestically, but also in his suppression, through the Third International, of the workers' movements in France, Germany and Spain.

The method which underlay James's analysis of the Soviet Union and the history of the Communist International was characteristic. He attempted to expose the dialectical interplay between the key personalities, Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin, and the much greater historical and political forces at work in this critical period. These moments of transition, the crisis in government as the old order gave way to something new, became a recurrent theme in James's work--from World Revolution and The Black Jacobins to his approach, especially during the latter part of his life, to colonial independence and his understanding of Shakespeare.

Although James provided a book badly needed by those on the Left who were opposed to Stalinism, World Revolution hinted at serious differences between the author's interpretation of recent historical events and the position of Trotsky. As James stated rather baldly in his analysis of Stalin's rise to power: "What is important is not that Trotsky was beaten, but that he was beaten so quickly." He had put his finger on an issue which later became decisive--the question of the bureaucracy; but there were other unresolved problems. Despite the vigorous discussion in Mexico in 1939 between James and Trotsky on a number of the issues raised by World Revolution, James had already begun to chart a new course in the interpretation of the method and ideas of revolutionary Marxism.3

At a time when Stalinism was pervasive among the British intelligentsia, James was often reminded that it was his Trotskyist politics which stood in the way of a promising career as a writer, historian and critic. But by 1938 James had moved a long way from his early ambitions. Europe, in turn, now confined his extraordinary energies and intellectual range. He seized the chance to visit the United States; and the conditions of the New World inspired his greatest and most original work.

[End of Part One]
(c) 1991 Anna Grimshaw


This essay was originally published in booklet form (comprising pp. 9-43) by The C.L.R. James Institute and Cultural Correspondence, New York, in co-operation with Smyrna Press, April 1991. 44 pp. ISBN 0918266-30-0.

It became the Introduction (pp. 1-22, notes pp. 418-419) to The C.L.R. James Reader, edited by Anna Grimshaw (Oxford, UK; Cambridge, USA: Blackwell, 1992).

Reprinted by special permission of Anna Grimshaw and The C.L.R. James Institute, Jim Murray, Director, 505 West End Avenue #15C, New York, NY 10024. jimmurray@igc.org

Web page prepared by Ralph Dumain, Librarian/Archivist, 8 October 2000.

Web page (c) 2000 The C.L.R. James Institute. All rights reserved. This text may not be published, reprinted, or reproduced without the express written consent of The C.L.R. James Institute.

(Uploaded 9 October 2000)

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