C L R James: the revolutionary as artist

Issue: 112
Posted: 12 October 06

Christian Høgsbjerg

I have long believed that a very great revolutionary is a great artist, and that he develops ideas, programmes, etc, as Beethoven develops a movement.


C L R James1


Cyril Lionel Robert James (1901-1989) was a towering intellectual of what has come to be known as ‘the black Atlantic’ and also one of the outstanding anti-Stalinist Marxist theorists of the 20th century. Yet, while the late Trinidadian historian may not need any introduction to many readers of International Socialism (especially those who are also devout cricket fans), for almost all of his quite remarkable life James was a rather marginalised and isolated individual, apparently too ‘extreme’ for even an ‘age of extremes’.2 In 1981 Paul Buhle predicted that this neglect would not last, and that ‘if civilisation survives the threat of nuclear annihilation another quarter century, James will be considered one of the few truly creative Marxists from the 1930s to the 1950s, perhaps alone in his masterful synthesis of world history, philosophy, government, mass life and popular culture’.3

Twenty five years on, while humanity has (so far) managed to avoid Armageddon, James’s insistence that the history of civilisation could be explained through an understanding of the history of class struggle is a view that today could not be a more denigrated theoretical perspective. The dedicated followers of contemporary intellectual fashion casually dismiss those who attempt to defend Marxism’s relevance today, gently reminding them that notions of ‘totality’ somehow inevitably lead to Stalinist ‘totalitarianism’. As a result, few of those scholars who do discuss C L R James today bother to pay a great deal of attention to his own insistence that his ‘greatest contributions’ had been ‘to clarify and extend the heritage of Marx and Lenin’ and ‘to explain and expand the idea of what constitutes the new society’.4 Instead many scholars celebrate James simply as a ‘pioneering icon’ of ‘post-colonial studies’ and ‘cultural studies’, almost as if all he ever did in life was sit around watching cricket matches and then go home and write brilliantly about the spectacle.5 In this article I argue that as a new global movement emerges against capitalism and war, in protest at Bush and Blair’s bloody ‘war on terror’ and the growing power of multinational corporations (arguably the real ‘totalitarian’ institutions of our age), James surely deserves to be remembered differently.

To attempt in a short article like this to do full justice to James’s contribution to revolutionary politics, which ranged widely in both space and time, covering three continents over 50 years, would be to do an injustice. Instead I will give a necessarily condensed overview of his life, in particular focusing on his early political thought, before turning to the question of how Marxists today might try to build on the best elements of James’s rich and inspiring legacy, a question that may not be an entirely new one to some readers of this journal.6

A portrait of the artist as a young man


C L R James was born on 4 January 1901 in Trinidad, a tiny island then languishing as a ‘crown colony’ in the economic backwaters of the British Empire. His parents, Robert and Ida Elizabeth James, were black and lower middle class, and both their fathers had worked their way up from almost nothing as immigrants from Barbados.7 On his father’s side, James’s grandfather made it as a pan boiler on one of Trinidad’s huge sugar estates (a post traditionally reserved by the white owners for other whites) and so into the nascent emerging black middle class of Trinidad after the abolition of colonial slavery in the 1830s. His struggle enabled his son Robert James to escape a life of manual labour on the sugar estates to become a respected teacher, and later headmaster. Possessing only ‘cultural capital’, the James family invested this in the only place they could, preparing their son to sit the entrance examination for the island’s elite school, Queen’s Royal College (QRC). C L R James was an uncommonly gifted boy and, aged just nine, became the youngest boy ever to win the necessary exhibition. Given that James’s great aunt had been a slave, and he had ‘often heard her speak of what slavery meant’, the fact that he was now attending the same school as the sons of white colonial officials was of course a huge source of vindication and pride for his whole family and their friends.8

Yet expectations that he would graduate from QRC with a scholarship to go abroad and study for a profession were to be dashed. James clearly could have chosen such a route had he wanted to, but his interest was increasingly distracted by life outside the classroom. Instead of paying full attention to Oxbridge educated teachers of Latin and Greek, James indulged his love for the game of cricket and for reading English literature. He happily absorbed the English ‘public school code’ of morals and graduated from QRC transformed, as he put it, ‘into a member of the British middle class with literary gifts’.9 The problem was that though officially a British subject, he was black and stuck in a tiny Caribbean colony where mass illiteracy and poverty ensured his dream of writing novels was hardly a lucrative career option, indeed hardly a career option at all. His mother, from whom he had inherited his love of reading, was supportive but his despairing father would repeatedly ask, ‘Well, where are you going?’ ‘That is all very well, but what about money?’10

After leaving QRC in 1918 all the contradictions of colonial rule slowly but steadily dawned on James. His public school education had trained him to lead men forward for ‘King and Country’, but when James tried to do just this by enlisting with the army officer’s regiment in 1918, he was blocked on account of being black. Those black members of the British West Indies Regiment who did fight in the First World War revolted in Italy against both the war and the institutional racism of the army, and their anger as they returned to price rises, poverty and overcrowded housing was the spark that threw Trinidadian society into turmoil.11

After a general strike led by dock workers rocked Trinidad’s capital Port of Spain in late 1919, the British introduced a token element of democracy into the island allowing Trinidadians to vote for a few members of the Legislative Council. In 1925 Captain Arthur Andrew Cipriani, the popular leader of the social democratic Trinidadian Workingmen’s Association and a former Port of Spain mayor, was elected.12 Now, as a mass nationalist movement took off around this charismatic workers’ leader, who often declared himself ‘the champion of the barefooted man’, James took notice:13 ‘My hitherto vague ideas of freedom crystallised around a political commitment: we should be free to govern ourselves’.14 From his reading of literary figures like Thackeray, Dickens and Hazlitt, James had developed a respect for the ‘British’ ideals of liberalism and democracy, and now he could see the clear hypocrisy of the British colonial elite, something he raged against in his first book, The Life of Captain Cipriani: An Account of British Government in the West Indies (1932):

Any man who tries to do for his people what Englishmen are so proud that other Englishmen have done for them, immediately becomes in the eyes of the Colonial Englishman a dangerous person, a wild revolutionary, a man with no respect for law and order, a self-seeker activated by the lowest motives, a reptile to be crushed at the first opportunity. What at home is the greatest virtue becomes in the colonies the greatest crime.15


In this work James tore into the British government’s line of ‘self-government when fit for it’, amply demonstrating that the people of Trinidad had always been manifestly ‘fit’ to govern themselves.16

When he was not teaching English and history, playing cricket (or covering matches in his capacity as a journalist), James spent time in the 1920s and early 1930s with a group of young black and white intellectuals in Port of Spain. They wrote ‘barrack-yard’ stories about the lives of the poor in shanty towns by way of implicit critique of colonial society, often publishing them themselves. As James later noted, ‘the basic constituent of my political activity and outlook’ was already set out in ‘the “human” aspect’ of Minty Alley, the unpublished novel he wrote in 1928 about the working people of one ‘barrack-yard’ he stayed in that summer.17

James’s humanist spirit would not be diminished when he left Trinidad for Britain in 1932 in order to try and make it as a writer. After all, colonial Trinidadian society with its clear divisions of race, class and power, which James had been able to view in its totality, from top to bottom, was in a sense only a microcosm of the world system, where white supremacy ruled under the flags of competing European empires.

The artist becomes a revolutionary


It is not altogether surprising, after his voyage into a Europe still scarred irrevocably by the horrors of the First World War, and then engulfed by the Great Depression and the rise of fascism, that James would be attracted by the ideas of Marxism. What is quite remarkable is that he was not to be attracted by what Isaac Deutscher called the ‘vulgar Marxism’ of Stalinism, but instead independently orientated towards Trotskyism. In the 1930s Leon Trotsky was a politically isolated exile, the ‘prophet outcast’ from the land of the October Revolution. Under Stalin, Russia was now in the midst of an industrial revolution and apparently proving the virtues of a ‘planned economy’ while capitalism slipped into the abyss. James’s political evolution in this period therefore arguably deserves additional explanation, and was clearly rather contingent on the circumstances in which he found himself on arriving in Britain in 1932.

It is important to note that when James arrived in Britain as an aspiring novelist he was still quite a long way from the revolutionary Marxist he would become. Indeed, if he could be called a socialist at this stage, his socialism was of the rather elitist Fabian variety. In an article he wrote for the Port of Spain Gazette in mid-1932, James declared he was ‘not impressed’ by ‘the English people’ he had met so far in London. As he put it, ‘it does seem to me that millions of these people are still mentally adolescent. They live on cheap films and cheap newspapers’.18 The Fabians themselves, around Sidney and Beatrice Webb, were soon to argue for the importation of a ‘new civilisation’ from Stalinist Russia to overcome the apparent intellectual backwardness of the English working class. However, before James could consider such things he left London for the Lancashire textile town of Nelson to stay with the family of his friend the legendary Trinidadian cricketer Learie Constantine, then playing professionally in the Lancashire League.

James arrived in Nelson in late May 1932 and left in late March 1933, and these were clearly ten months that shook his world. James saw the devastating effects of the collapse of the Lancashire cotton industry, but alongside mass poverty he also saw a community of resistance proudly fighting back. ‘Red Nelson’, as it was known locally, was a solidly working class town, pervaded by an ethos of anti-militarism and ethical socialism, stemming in part from radical, independent Christian Methodism. When, in August 1932, mill-owners across Lancashire started to tear up existing agreements and bring in scab labour to try and restore profitability in the cotton textile industry, cotton workers and weavers struck back to save their livelihoods. The mass strike, which raged for over a month, was a powerful demonstration of the power and resourcefulness of the working class, something James had not witnessed since the general strike of 1919 in Trinidad.19

When he arrived in Nelson, James remembered, ‘my Labour and socialist ideas had been got from books and were rather abstract’. He joined the Labour Party in Nelson because he saw it as an organisation that was on paper committed to West Indian self-government. However, Lancashire cotton workers remembered Gandhi’s recent visit to Lancashire and how the Labour government of 1929-31 had brutally repressed Indian nationalists. Moreover, that Labour government had collapsed after having abjectly failed to defend the interests of those who had elected it as mass unemployment grew, and insult had been added to injury when in late 1931 many of Labour’s leaders jumped ship to form a new ‘national’ government in coalition with the Tories. As James recalled, ‘These humorously cynical working men were a revelation and brought me down to earth.’ When he told these betrayed former Labour supporters of his hopes in a future Labour government to deliver colonial liberation, they said, ‘You make a mistake. Ramsay MacDonald, [Arthur] Henderson, Phillip Snowden, [Herbert] Morrison, they never gave us anything and we put them there; why do you think they would give you any?’20

James wrestled with the answer to such questions while in Nelson, and later described how his previous passion for literature ‘was vanishing from my consciousness and politics was substituting itself’.21 The massive economic crisis also opened up a quite profound ideological crisis. As the British historian Arnold Toynbee noted in 1931, ‘Men and women all over the world were seriously contemplating and frankly discussing the possibility that the Western system of society might break down and cease to work’.22 One popular work at the time was the German author Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, written in 1917 during the First World War, which predicted the inevitable triumph of irrational brutal dictatorships in the heartlands of ‘Western civilisation’. Its prophetic title alone, given the alarming rise of fascism, made it a bestseller and James was deeply impressed but remembers he ‘did not accept the decline that Spengler preached’.23 After all, meeting class conscious workers in ‘Red Nelson’ had completely and permanently altered his attitude towards ‘the English people’. As he wrote in 1932, after hearing stories of past class struggles in Nelson:

I could forgive England all the vulgarity and all the depressing disappointment of London for the magnificent spirit of these north country working people. As long as that is the stuff of which they are made, then indeed Britons never, never shall be slaves.24


In Nelson, James also happened upon the first volume of Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution (1931), which had just been published in England and which immediately captured his imagination with its powerful analysis. As he remembered, Trotsky ‘was not only giving details of the revolution itself, but he was expounding the Marxist theory of historical materialism’, even making ‘references to literature as expressing social reality and social change’.25 Trotsky explained why workers, especially those in Britain, could follow conservative ideas much of the time, yet still retained the possibility of transforming themselves into masters of their own destiny through collective struggle and organisation. James saw that Marxism not only offered a serious explanation of the world crisis but also pointed to where the hope for the future lay.

In 1933 James returned to London and, having secured a prestigious job as a cricket correspondent with the Manchester Guardian, continued his campaigning work for West Indian self-government inside the Labour Party. Yet while someone with his talents could have risen up the ranks of the Labour Party with ease had he wished, James was increasingly tiring of having to always invoke his ‘Britishness’ and ‘respectability’, as most colonial subjects did, in order to then be able to criticise colonialism and racism. The rise of Hitler onto the world stage proclaiming himself the saviour of the Aryan race meant James now defiantly adopted a more radical, transnational identification with other black people (and their culture). That summer James attended a meeting in London to hear the legendary George Padmore, the leading black figure in the international Communist movement, speak. James remembers that ‘I was going to every meeting in those days and the race aspect of the matter was an added attraction’—not least because the Labour Party, for some reason, never seemed to hold any meetings on the colonial question.26

James would not regret going to that meeting, not least because ‘George Padmore’ unexpectedly turned out to be a boyhood friend of his from Trinidad, Malcolm Nurse. The two had not seen each other for about eight years, since Nurse had left for America.27 After hearing the inspirational Padmore speak about the ‘coming African revolution’ James had even more questions that needed answering. How could the ‘Stalinist’ Communist movement be so bad if such a good friend like Padmore could rise so high in it, so soon after joining it in America in 1927? Surely in the interests of fair play at least, after reading Trotsky’s History, he should try to understand what the ‘other side’ was saying as well? As James later put it, he felt ‘it was necessary to read the relevant volumes of Stalin. And, of course I had to read Lenin in order to trace back the quarrel… I realised the Stalinists were the greatest liars and corrupters of history there ever were. No one convinced me of this. I convinced myself.’ After Lenin, James turned finally to the writings of Karl Marx ‘and thereby I reached volume one of Das Kapital and The Eighteenth Brumaire [of Louis Bonaparte]’.28

However, the final clue to James’s commitment to Trotskyism lies less in his study of the Marxist classics, but with his experience of how disastrous Stalinism was in practice. In late 1933 James spent six months in Paris researching the life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the victorious slave revolt in Haiti at the time of the Great French Revolution. In early February 1934 Paris was experiencing massive civil unrest as the French far right hoped to emulate Hitler’s success the year before, through exploiting growing middle class discontent with the economic crisis and blaming ‘corrupt’ financiers and Jews. Yet both the social democratic Socialist Party (SFIO) and the French Communist Party did nothing when a violent fascist protest on the 6 February forced the resignation of the Liberal prime minister and his replacement with a more right wing politician, a massive boost to the fascists. The Communist paper L’Humanite, following the Stalinist line that revolution, not counter-revolution, was imminent, carried the headline ‘No Panic’ and declared that the choice between fascism and the current government was like the choice between ‘plague and cholera’.29 As James noted later, ‘the utter imbecility of all Stalinism was never more completely shown than in the actions of the Communist Party of France in this grave crisis’.30

Just as James must have been wondering whether it was time to get out of France while he could, the working people of Paris instinctively felt the need for unity against the fascists, something only a minuscule group of Trotskyists were arguing for. On the night of 10 February, James later described how there was ‘fierce fighting’ and ‘men were killed. The proletariat, the stock of 1789 and 10 August 1792, of 1830, of 1848 and 1871, came out in their thousands, whether Socialist or Communist.’ On 12 February the main union federation, the CGT, called for a general strike and at the last minute the Communist Party called for a demonstration, albeit separately to the main Socialist Party/CGT one. However, instead of the two demonstrations showing their traditional animosity towards each other, on meeting workers spontaneously and gloriously came together to sing anti-fascist slogans. As James wrote, ‘It was in the streets that French parliamentarism was saved. The coup had failed’.31

Yet on his return to London in March 1934 Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists were now a growing threat, and so when James came across some Trotskyists leafleting a Labour Party meeting he decided to leave the Labour Party and join them. The entire Trotskyist movement in Britain at this point consisted of about 50 people, most of whom, like James, were new to revolutionary politics. James remembers that ‘there were some people from Oxford and Cambridge who…brought some criticism to the official Trotskyists and they couldn’t answer. So on the same night I joined I had to speak on behalf of Trotskyism’.32 If James was pleased to finally meet the ‘official’ Trotskyists, we can only imagine how happy they were to see him.

The artist as revolutionary


Joining the Trotskyist movement in Britain at this time for James meant joining the tiny ‘Marxist Group’ inside the Independent Labour Party (ILP). The ILP had split away from Labour in 1932 in disgust at its betrayals and in order to try to build a socialist alternative. James’s talents as a journalist and writer meant he soon not only became a leading member of British Trotskyism but also quickly came to the notice of the ILP leadership. Within a year James had established his reputation on the British left for his leading role in attempting to organise opposition to Fascist Italy’s barbaric war against the people of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia), which began in October 1935.33 In time-honoured fashion, Mussolini declared his criminal invasion and occupation of a sovereign nation was ‘a war of civilisation and liberation’, even a war ‘of the poor, of the disinherited, of the proletariat!’34 As chair of the newly formed International African Friends of Abyssinia (IAFA), James cut through what he called ‘the mountain of lies and nonsense’ which surrounded the war, lies which had confused even sections of the left in Britain, damning the role of not just Fascist Italy in Abyssinia but European imperialism in Africa more generally, in a series of outstanding articles and speeches.35 In March 1936 James turned his research on the Haitian Revolution into a play, Toussaint L’Ouverture, starring the legendary black American singer Paul Robeson, staged in London.

The betrayal of Abyssinia by Stalinist Russia, which sold oil to Fascist Italy during the conflict, was one of the most visible demonstrations of the way in which the Communist International under Stalin had steadily abandoned world revolution in favour of building up ‘socialism in one country’. After Hitler came to power, Stalin moved to try and make diplomatic approaches with Britain and France and so the Stalinist bureaucracy now drew a distinction between the ‘democratic imperialist’ countries of Britain, America and France on the one hand and the ‘fascist imperialist’ powers of Germany, Italy and Japan on the other. When the Communist International instructed George Padmore to explain to African workers and peasants resisting British and French colonial dictatorships that the British and French governments were now ‘democratic’ and even ‘peace-loving’, he refused on principle. After resigning his Comintern post in disgust, Padmore returned to London to join up with James and work in the IAFA.36

Amid the tumultuous events of 1936, a year which saw among other things Spain in revolt and the election of a Popular Front government in France, and despite only being in the Trotskyist movement a few years, James now wrote World Revolution, 1917-1936: The Rise and Fall of the Communist International (1937). This was one of the first serious and detailed examinations of the terrible international consequences of the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy in Russia, and as Kent Worcester has noted, ‘there were not even academic studies that covered the same ground’.37 In fact, plenty of Western intellectuals at this time were writing about the Stalinist bureaucracy. However, these were lyrical hymns of praise to a new ruling class, which in 1936 had congratulated itself on achieving ‘the final and irrevocable victory of Socialism’ in Russia. James was motivated not only by the need to defend the relevance of the rich revolutionary legacy of Bolshevism, but more fundamentally to uphold the truth in the face of Stalinist distortions about what had really happened to the international working class movement since the end of the First World War. As he put it in World Revolution, ‘for suppression, evasion and hard lying the documents of the Soviet Union and the Third International today form, along with British colonial propaganda and fascist demagogy, a trilogy which future historians will contemplate with wonder’.38

James’s growing sense that any authoritarian regime or police state, whatever its particular official ideology (whether ‘communist’, ‘fascist’ or ‘democratic’), shared a fundamental common ethos and logic gave the work a certain prophetic power. It is not surprising that George Orwell, who, like James, had had first hand experience of both British imperial rule (in Burma) and the counter-revolutionary nature of Stalinism (in the Spanish Civil War), was impressed by World Revolution, describing it as a ‘very able book’.39 Communist officials who crossed swords with the eloquent Trotskyist from Trinidad were obviously less impressed. In the finest traditions of Stalinism, they attempted to persuade their supporters that James, one of the most prominent black figures in British politics who had made his name opposing Mussolini’s war, was actually not only on the same side as ‘German and Italian Fascism, British imperialism and Japanese militarism’ but even directly engaged in ‘fascist activity’.40 When this line of argument, for some reason, failed to convince, James was made out to be some sort of confused liberal (the ‘Manchester Guardian Trotskyist’ with his ‘easily detected’ forgeries and lies, etc).41

James was not, however, to be deterred from his support for Trotsky (who despite being Jewish was now accused by Stalin’s regime of being in cohorts with Hitler) and risked beatings by disrupting large meetings organised by the British Communist Party to attempt to justify the Moscow Trials.42 James by now was also working closely with George Padmore, who in justified disgust with Stalinism had moved towards Pan-Africanism and in 1937 had founded the International African Service Bureau (IASB) to continue his work for the liberation of Africa from colonialism. While this organisation was inevitably overshadowed somewhat by the more respectable League of Coloured Peoples and the presence of Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican born Pan-Africanist and founder of the Back to Africa movement, in London during this period, the bureau’s political independence allowed it to punch well above its weight regardless. Nor were James (who edited the IASB paper alongside the Trotskyist paper Fight) and Padmore afraid to pull any punches, heckling Garvey in Hyde Park for his conservative reaction to the mass labour revolts sweeping the Caribbean during this period.43

In 1938 James published The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, his panoramic account of the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1803, ‘the only successful slave revolt in history’. As James Walvin has written, in the 1930s ‘the scholarship on slavery and abolition had changed little in direction and tone for more than a century, and continued to concentrate on the rise of humanitarianism and its effective campaign in ending the cruelty of the slave system. C L R James effectively turned the tide,’ restoring the actions of the slaves themselves as being central to their own liberation.44 However, few were willing to even entertain such a thought when it first came out. Flora Greirson, writing in the New Statesman, dismissed The Black Jacobins because of its bias, noting James was ‘a Communist and wants us to see the worst’.45 Leaving aside the question of what might possibly constitute the ‘best’ bits of the slave experience, in reality had James actually been a Communist with a capital ‘C’ the work would undoubtedly have received more favourable attention on publication. As Eugene Genovese noted in 1971, The Black Jacobins ‘deserves to rank as a classic of Marxian historiography but has been largely ignored, perhaps because of the author’s Trotskyist politics’.46 There was no ‘perhaps’ about it, though Eric Hobsbawm has recalled that ‘in spite of the author’s known Trotskyism’ the work did influence and inspire at least some members of the Communist Party Historians Group in Britain. This group of Marxist intellectuals was to be critical for the development of the tradition of ‘history from below’ after the Second World War.47

Yet the intellectual inspiration of Leon Trotsky was central to ‘the making’ of The Black Jacobins as a masterful work of revolutionary history. Firstly, there was the clear influence of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, which James once declared ‘the greatest history book ever written…the climax of 2,000 years of European writing and the study of history’. For James, Trotsky was the revolutionary historian par excellence, as:

in pure style, this materialist, as rigid with fact as Scaliger, is exceeded in no sphere by any one of his ancestors, not by Thucidides in proportion and lucidity, nor by Tacitus in invective, nor by Gibbon in dignity, nor Michelet in passion, nor by Macauley, that great bourgeois, in efficiency. There is a profound lesson here not only in history but in aesthetics.


Secondly, there was Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution which James once insisted that ‘in analytical power and imaginative audacity’ was ‘one of the most astounding products of the modern mind’.48 In the History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky had demonstrated that the combined and uneven development of capitalism allowed apparently ‘backward’ countries like Tsarist Russia to come to the fore of world history in the age of socialist revolution. Possibly the most striking of James’s achievements in The Black Jacobins was the way in which he showed how the theory of permanent revolution also illuminated colonial struggles in the age of bourgeois revolution, with the Haitian Revolution inextricably intertwined throughout the 1790s with the Great French Revolution.

In late 1938 James left Britain for a speaking tour organised by the American Trotskyist movement, but the outbreak of the Second World War among other reasons meant he ended up staying for the next 15 years. James would later, rightly, remember his years in America as ‘the most important years of my life’.49

In April 1939 James spent a week with Leon Trotsky at Coyoacan in Mexico in order to discuss how Marxists might convincingly answer ‘the Negro question’, the question posed by the massive systematic racism suffered by black people in America.50 James’s radical attempt to solve this question would later influence a group which Manning Marable has argued represented ‘in many respects the most significant expression of black radical thought and activism in the 1960s’, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.51 This is not the place to detail how, alongside Raya Dunayevskaya and Grace Lee Boggs, James formed the ‘Johnson-Forest Tendency’ within American Trotskyism in order to attempt to deal with the profound crisis the movement was thrown into after Trotsky’s murder in 1940. Their highly original attempt to make a ‘leap from the heights of Leninism’ through breaking with ‘orthodox Trotskyism’ and returning to the writings of Hegel, Marx and Lenin in order to face up to the new realities after the Second World War has been concisely and critically analysed by, among others, Alex Callinicos.52

It is perhaps enough to note here that their development of a theory of state capitalism to understand the Stalinist regimes enabled the ‘Johnson-Forest Tendency,’ like the French group ‘Socialisme ou Barbarie’ around Cornelius Castoriadis and the Socialist Review Group around Tony Cliff in Britain, to preserve an orientation around Marx’s central theoretical insight that the emancipation of the working class would be the conquest of the working class itself.53 While both Stalinists and ‘orthodox Trotskyists’ held on to the notion that state ownership of the means of production meant the Stalinist regimes were ‘socialist’, those Marxists who held to a theory of state capitalism were free to champion the struggles of workers under Stalinist tyranny fighting back against ‘their’ states. All three groups had also successfully broken from the ultimately elitist Stalinist and ‘orthodox Trotskyist’ theory of the party, which arrogantly declared itself the solution to the ‘crisis of revolutionary leadership’, and then dismissed as ‘backward’ the vast majority of the working class for not suddenly rallying to its banner.

Yet, unlike Cliff’s Socialist Review Group, the ‘Johnson-Forest Tendency’ and ‘Socialisme ou Barbarie’ also steadily abandoned the rich Bolshevik legacy of ideas on revolutionary organisation, to be content with merely celebrating spontaneous struggles of the working class, as if these struggles in themselves could overcome what James called the ‘crisis of the self-mobilisation of the proletariat’.54 In 1937, in World Revolution, James had noted that ‘the pathetic faith the average worker has in the leaders of the organisations he has created is one of the chief supports of the capitalist system’.55 The post-war economic boom meant the grip of reformism over the Western working class movement grew stronger than ever, as the system was actually able to deliver meaningful ‘reforms’. Yet, inspired by the rise of the CIO union in America, the British shop stewards’ movement and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, James wrote as if reformist ideas and organisations were dead or dying, thus rendering revolutionary parties on the Bolshevik model now also redundant.56

Antonio Gramsci once suggested that revolutionary Marxists should be guided by the motto ‘Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’.57 Amid the terrible defeats that overwhelmed the movement during the 1930s and 1940s, a period dominated by Stalinism and fascism which the revolutionary novelist Victor Serge aptly termed ‘midnight of the century’, many radicals fell into a profound pessimism of both intellect and will. It was in this period that the tradition of ‘Western Marxism’ based around the Frankfurt School now emerged, and as American capitalism boomed, these thinkers now abandoned any belief that the working class could be the central agent of change in the future.

The ‘Western Marxists’ examined how ordinary people were effectively transformed from active citizens into passive consumers by the power of the mass media, advertising and popular forms of entertainment like Hollywood movies. James, reacting against this fundamentally elitist outlook by a privileged group of intellectuals, now made a ‘literary turn’ of sorts back to cultural questions to show the contradictions and complexities of ‘mass culture’. ‘The modern popular film, the modern newspaper (the Daily News, not the Times), the comic strip, the evolution of jazz, a popular periodical like Life, these mirror from year to year the deep social responses and evolution of the American people in relation to the fate which has overtaken the original concepts of freedom, free individuality, free association, etc,’ James insisted.58 This is not the place to discuss his wide-ranging works in this vein which included American Civilization (1949-1950), Mariners, Renegades and Castaways (1953)—a study of Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick—and of course, Beyond a Boundary (1963). They arguably deserve more critical attention from Marxists than they have tended to receive up to now.59

Yet despite James’s grasp of Marxism as a living, ever-evolving theory, and the creativity he showed as a ‘revolutionary artist’ in attempting to develop that theory, his abandonment of classical Leninist strategy and tactics ultimately proved costly politically. In World Revolution James had approvingly quoted Lenin when he ‘called for “determined war” against the attempt of all those quasi-Communist revolutionists to cloak the liberation movement in the backward countries with a Communist garb’.60 Yet as the ‘colonial revolution’ erupted after the Second World War, James refused to wage any such ‘determined war’. Indeed, perhaps because he knew so many of them personally, James showed a disastrous misjudgement of many leaders of national liberation movements, helping several to cloak themselves in a communist garb. James would have to then break from those he had once declared revolutionary leaders on a par with Lenin.61

James’s relevance for the movement today


While Marxists should not therefore deify James, nor should we forget that significant aspects of his political thought have a rather poignant resonance and relevance today. Given the context of Bush and Blair’s ‘war on terror,’ it is important to remember James in particular for his implacable opposition to imperialism. Paul Berman, a former ‘libertarian socialist’ turned miserable apologist for the American Empire, in Terror and Liberalism (2003) has warned that unless the contemporary left drops its ‘anti-imperialist fervours’ and rediscovers its ‘ability to stand up to [Islamo-]fascism’, Western civilisation will be destroyed by a rising tide of ‘Muslim totalitarian movements’. Carried away with his self-appointed role as a 21st century Rudyard Kipling, urging Americans to ‘take up the White Man’s burden’, Berman invokes C L R James as if he might serve as a kind of role-model for a new, pro-war, ‘anti-totalitarian left’.62 This is worse than just another blunder in a book full of blunders: it is a crime. It is not only that James would doubtless have found ‘Islamo-Fascism’ a disgusting perversion of language; it is that as a Marxist he always saw the growth of religious movements in countries under colonial occupation as both an expression of real suffering as well as an inspiring form of protest against subjugation.63

Moreover, in The Black Jacobins James reiterated his opposition to imperialist wars, in which ‘the great propertied interests and their agents commit the most ferocious crimes in the name of the whole people, and bluff and browbeat them by lying propaganda’. In 1796 the British government of the day sent an army to the rebellious Caribbean island of what is now Haiti in an attempt to reimpose colonial slavery, in what turned out to be a criminal and disastrous invasion that left thousands of innocent people dead. This was justified in parliament at the time by Henry Dundas, the Tony Blair of his day, as ‘not a war for riches or local aggrandisement but a war for security’. James wrote that ‘Dundas knew that not a single member of parliament would believe him. But parliament has always agreed to speak in these terms in order to keep the people quiet’.64

After one reads The Black Jacobins, one can only wonder in amazement when careerist New Labour politicians who support Bush and Blair’s ‘war for security’ suddenly sing the praises of C L R James. When culture secretary Tessa Jowell notes that he is ‘one of the best black intellectuals’ and ‘one of the greatest Caribbean writers’, one can only speculate that as a member of Blair’s ‘war cabinet’, Jowell perhaps knows better than most the awful truth behind James’s point that ‘it is easier to find decency, gratitude, justice, and humanity in a cage of starving tigers than in the councils of imperialism’.65 When David Lammy, minister for culture, tells us in all sincerity that James is his all-time ‘hero’ for writing the ‘exceptionally influential’ Black Jacobins and so helping him develop his ‘sense of history’, it is difficult to know whether to laugh or cry.66

Overall, that C L R James since his death in 1989 has generally been remembered not as a revolutionary Marxist but as a ‘harmless icon’ is not altogether a surprise. After Leon Trotsky’s murder in 1940, James himself noted that:

idiots and bourgeois scoundrels always emphasise Trotsky’s personal brilliance whereby they seek to disparage Trotsky’s method. The two are inseparable. His natural gifts were trained and developed by Marxism.67


The same was fundamentally true of James himself, as I have tried to show in this article, and it is above all as a courageous, creative Marxist and a thinker in the revolutionary democratic tradition of ‘socialism from below’, to use Hal Draper’s phrase, that we should remember him.68 James indicted both Stalinism and social democracy for their perversion of the ‘soul of socialism’, their belief that it is something that can be imposed on a grateful majority from above, by an enlightened minority. When John Reid, who himself has made a seamless transition from Stalinism to New Labour, tells us that when the American and British governments rain down smart bombs on innocent Iraqi civilians they are fighting a ‘socialist war’, we can see where such arrogant elitism tends to end up.69 Such ‘socialists’ never seem to have grasped the most elementary, essential truth—a truth which C L R James did so much to powerfully elucidate—that liberation from oppression and exploitation can only come from below, from the mass movements and struggles of the oppressed and exploited themselves.

NOTES
1: C L R James, Notes on Dialectics: Hegel, Marx, Lenin (London, 1980), p153. Thanks to Paul Blackledge and Osama Zumam for their comments on this article in draft.
2: The allusions here are to Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic and Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes; The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991. Much of James’s finest writing on his beloved game of cricket is collected in C L R James and A Grimshaw, Cricket (London, 1989), while for more discussion of James and cricket, see David Renton’s (forthcoming) biography.
3: P Buhle, ‘Marxism in the USA’, in P Buhle (ed), C L R James: His Life and Work (London, 1986), p81. See also Buhle’s pioneering biographical study, P Buhle, C L R James: The Artist as Revolutionary (London, 1993).
4: P Buhle (ed), as above, p164.
5: When one reads an analysis of James’s classic semi-autobiographical social history of cricket, Beyond a Boundary (1963), which notes that ‘the homoeroticism of James’s cricket pitch lends itself to a non-rugged masculinity that can, again potentially, be opened up as an inclusive social arena, that does not privilege and perpetuate patriarchy’, one wonders if we are not perhaps learning more about that particular academic than we are about C L R James. See B A L St Louis, ‘C L R James’s Social Theory: A Critique of Race and Modernity’, unpublished PhD thesis (University of Southampton, 1999), p28. For a critique of the consequences that tend to come with being declared a ‘pioneer of postcolonial studies’, see D Macey, Frantz Fanon: A Life (London, 2000), p26-28.
6: James himself wrote several book reviews for International Socialism in the 1960s, one of which, ‘Revolutionary Creativity’, is reprinted on the C L R James Archive at http://www.marxists.org.uk/archive/james-clr/works/1964/creative.htm. Ian Birchall recalls that in 1967 C L R James shared a platform with Tony Cliff and others for an International Socialists rally on the fiftieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. If any readers knew James, or perhaps have information on his relationship to the International Socialist tradition, then please feel free to contact me at cjhogsbjerg@hotmail.com
7: P Henry and P Buhle (eds), C L R James’s Caribbean (London, 1992), p41.
8: See James’s Beyond a Boundary (1963) for life growing up in colonial Trinidad. The quote comes from C L R James, ‘Slavery Today: A Shocking Exposure’, Tit-Bits, 5 August 1933.
9: C L R James, Beyond a Boundary (London, 1969), p41.
10: P Henry and P Buhle (eds), as above, p56.
11: P Buhle (ed), as above, p55.
12: G Farred (ed), Rethinking C L R James (Oxford, 1996), p17.
13: C L R James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (London, 2001), p315.
14: C L R James, Beyond a Boundary, as above, p119.
15: A Grimshaw (ed), The C L R James Reader (Oxford, 1992), p53.
16: In this James was following in the footsteps of other Trinidadian nationalists. See S Cudjoe, ‘C L R James and the Trinidad and Tobago Intellectual Tradition’, New Left Review 223, (1997).
17: A Grimshaw, The C L R James Archive: A Readers’ Guide (New York, 1991), p94. Minty Alley was published in 1936.
18: C L R James, Letters from London (Oxford, 2003), p122. These letters that James wrote for the Port of Spain Gazette from London in 1932 give a fascinating insight into his thinking at this time.
19: For more on ‘Red Nelson’ see J Liddington, The Life and Times of a Respectable Rebel: Selina Cooper 1864-1946 (London, 1984).
20: C L R James, Eightieth Birthday Lectures (London, 1984), p55, and Beyond a Boundary, as above, p122. For the British Labour government’s repression of Indian nationalists, see the excellent discussion in J Newsinger, The Blood Never Dried: A People’s History of the British Empire (London, 2006), p144-147.
21: C L R James, Beyond a Boundary, as above, p124.
22: A Bogues, Caliban’s Freedom: The Early Political Thought of C L R James (London, 1997), p49.
23: C L R James, American Civilisation (Oxford, 1993), p297.
24: C L R James, Letters from London, as above, p124-125.
25: C L R James, American Civilisation, as above, p297.
26: A Grimshaw (ed), as above, p291.
27: C L R James, At the Rendezvous of Victory: Selected Writings vol 3 (London, 1984), p240.
28: D Widgery, ‘C L R James’, in D Widgery, Preserving Disorder: Selected Essays 1968-88 (London, 1989), p123.
29: C Harman, A People’s History of the World (London, 1999), p494.
30: C L R James, World Revolution, 1917-1936: The Rise and Fall of the Communist International (New Jersey, 1994), p379.
31: As above, p381.
32: C L R James, ‘Interview with Al Richardson’ (1986), Revolutionary History, http://www.revolutionary-history.co.uk/supplem/jamesint.htm
33: For how James’s study of the Haitian Revolution influenced his thought about Abyssinian resistance to imperialism, see my article, C Høgsbjerg, ‘C L R James and Italy’s Conquest of Abyssinia’, Socialist History 28 (2006). This issue of Socialist History is devoted to ‘The Abyssinian Crisis’.
34: The quote from Mussolini was from a speech he gave at Pontinia, December 18 1935, quoted in the Times, 20 December 1935. See G Padmore, Africa and World Peace (London, 1972), p153.
35: See, for example, C L R James, ‘Abyssinia and the Imperialists’, in A Grimshaw (ed), as above.
36: C L R James, ‘George Padmore: Black Marxist Revolutionary’, in At the Rendezvous of Victory, as above, p255.
37: K Worcester, C L R James: A Political Biography (New York, 1996), p45.
38: C L R James, World Revolution, as above, p16. World Revolution was banned by the British colonial authorities in India.
39: P Davison (ed), The Complete Works of George Orwell, vol 11 (London, 1998), p87. On George Orwell, see J Newsinger, Orwell’s Politics (Basingstoke, 1999).
40: See Revolutionary History, vol 6, nos 2/3 (1996), p53.
41: S Bornstein and A Richardson, Against the Stream: A History of the Trotskyist Movement in Britain, 1924-1938 (London, 1986), p216.
42: J Archer, ‘C L R James and British Trotskyism, 1932-38’, Revolutionary History, vol 6, nos 2/3 (1996), p64. For a more personal insight on James and British Trotskyism in the 1930s, see the memoir by Louise Cripps, C L R James: Memories and Commentaries (London, 1997).
43: B Schwarz (ed), West Indian Intellectuals in Britain (Manchester, 2003), p137.
44: C L R James, The Black Jacobins, as above, ppviii, xviii.
45: J D Young, The World of C L R James: His Unfragmented Vision (Glasgow, 1999), p64.
46: E Genovese, In Red and Black: Marxian Explorations in Southern and Afro-American History (London, 1971), p155. For further discussion of ‘classic Marxian historiography’ see P Blackledge, Reflections on the Marxist Theory of History (Manchester, 2006). Stuart Hall has an illuminating discussion of The Black Jacobins in History Workshop Journal 46 (1998).
47: E J Hobsbawm, ‘The Historians Group of the Communist Party’, in M Cornforth (ed), Rebels and Their Causes (London, 1978), p23.
48: C L R James, ‘Trotsky’s Place in History’, in S McLemee and P Le Blanc (eds), C L R James and Revolutionary Marxism: Selected writings of C L R James, 1939-49 (New Jersey, 1994), pp94, 118, 123.
49: C Gair (ed), Beyond Boundaries: C L R James and Postnational Studies (London, 2006), p129. For personal insight into James’s ‘American years’, see the autobiography of the late Constance Webb, Not Without Love: Memoirs (London, 2003), together with A Grimshaw (ed), Special Delivery: The letters of C L R James to Constance Webb, 1939-1948 (Oxford, 1990).
50: Their discussion is reprinted in G Breitman (ed), Leon Trotsky on Black Nationalism and Self-Determination (New York, 1972), and discussed in A Shawki, ‘Black Liberation and Socialism in the United States’, International Socialism 47, (Summer 1990). See also M Shachtman, Race and Revolution (London, 2003), and S McLemee (ed), C L R James on the ‘Negro Question’ (Jackson, 1996).
51: D Georgakas and M Surkin, Detroit: I Do Mind Dying (London, 1998), ppxi, 16, 262. Georgakas and Surkin in their history of the League note that ‘James’s ideas were well known to League activists and Black Jacobins was the work which struck the deepest chord.’
52: See A Callinicos, Trotskyism (Minneapolis, 1990), which is online at: http://www.marxists.de/trotism/callinicos/ index.htm See also my brief discussion in C Høgsbjerg, ‘Beyond the Boundary of Leninism? C L R James and 1956’, Revolutionary History vol 9, no 3 (2006), (forthcoming). Grace Lee Boggs’s autobiography, Living for Change (Minneapolis, 1998), also sheds much light on the ‘Johnson-Forest Tendency’. In America James used the pseudonym ‘J R Johnson’ while Raya Dunayevskaya was ‘Freddie Forest’. In 1955 the tendency, by then called ‘Correspondence’, split when Dunayevskaya broke away to form her own ‘Marxist-Humanist’ group, News and Letters.
53: As James put it in 1950, Stalinist Russia represented a ‘desperate attempt under the guise of “socialism” and “planned economy” to reorganise the means of production without releasing the proletariat from wage slavery.’ See C L R James, R Dunayevskaya, and G Lee, State Capitalism and World Revolution (Chicago, 1986), p7.
54: As above, pp58-59.
55: C L R James, World Revolution, as above, p171.
56: For a spirited defence of James’s theory of the party, see M Glaberman (ed), Marxism for Our Times: C L R James on Revolutionary Organisation (Jackson, 1999). Contrary to popular belief, James never dropped his belief that Marxists needed to form some sort of revolutionary organisation, but he seemed perfectly content to replace Lenin’s ideas on the party with the rather general formulations of Marx, despite the fact that Marx developed his ideas about revolutionary organisation at a time when reformism had a much weaker hold on the organised working class movement. For a discussion of the difference between Marx and Lenin on this question, see John Molyneux’s Marxism and the Party (London, 1978).
57: Q Hoare and G Nowell Smith (eds), Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci (London, 2003), p175.
58: K Worcester, as above, p106.
59: See B Schwarz, ‘C L R James’s American Civilization’, in C Gair (ed), as above. I have drawn attention to the circumstances in which James came to write Beyond a Boundary in C Høgsbjerg, ‘Facing post-colonial reality? C L R James, the black Atlantic and 1956’, in K Flett (ed), 1956 (Cambridge, 2006) (forthcoming).
60: C L R James, World Revolution, p234.
61: See James’s speech praising Kwame Nkrumah in Accra, Ghana, in 1960. C L R James, Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution (London, 1977), p164.
62: P Berman, Terror and Liberalism (London, 2003), pp22, 206-207.
63: See, for example, James’s discussion of voodoo in The Black Jacobins, or his pioneering study of millenarian movements in colonial Africa in C L R James, A History of Negro Revolt (London, 1938), p85. In a lecture James gave in Trinidad in 1960, he told his audience that ‘if you want to read about anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism, take the Bible and read the last book, that is the Revelations of St John’. Quoted in A L Nielsen, C L R James: A Critical Introduction (Jackson, 1997), p144.
64: C L R James, The Black Jacobins, as above, pp109, 300.
65: Jowell’s comments were made as an English heritage plaque was unveiled to C L R James in Brixton in October 2004, reported on the BBC website at the time. See also The Black Jacobins, as above, p229.
66: D Lammy, ‘My History Hero: C L R James’, BBC History, October 2005.
67: C L R James, ‘Trotsky’s Place in History’, as above, p105. On the fate of revolutionary leaders after their death, see V I Lenin, The State and Revolution (London, 1992), p7.
68: See H Draper, The Two Souls of Socialism (London, 1996).
69: See Reid’s interview in the New Statesman, 3 March 2003.