C. L. R. James

C. L. R. James

Cyril Lional Robert James, the son of a schoolteacher, was born in Tunapuna, Trinidad, on 4th January, 1901. He was deeply influenced by his mother who was a avid reader. A very intelligent child, at the age of six he won won a scholarship to Queens Royal College. As a young man James met George Padmore and the two men became close friends.

After leaving college James worked as a school teacher and as a cricket reporter. He also wrote two novels, La Divina Pastora (1927) and Triumph (1929). He took a keen interest in politics and wrote a biography of the Trinidadian labour leader, Arthur Cipriani. The book, Life of Captain Cipriani was published in 1929.

The cricketer, Learie Constantine, suggested that James should emigrate to England. He arrived in 1932 and for a while lived with Constantine in Nelson, Lancashire. He also managed to get work reporting cricket matches for the Manchester Guardian. James was a strong supporter of West Indian independence. A pamphlet that he wrote, The Case for West Indian Self-Government, was published in 1933 by Leonard Woolf.

James moved to London and during this period he studied the work of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Leon Trotsky. He initially joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and after moving to London became chairman of its Finchley branch. He also wrote for left-wing journals such as the New Leader and Controversy. James became a Marxist and left the ILP to form the Revolutionary Socialist League. James, now a follower of Trotsky, was highly critical of the government of Joseph Stalin and the British Communist Party.

In 1936 James published Minty Alley. The novel was based on his childhood in Trinidad. He also wrote a play about Toussaint Louverture, the leader of the Haitian revolution, and in 1936 Paul Robeson played the leading role at its production at the Westminster Theatre.

James also published several books on politics including Abyssinia and the Imperialists (1936), World Revolution 1917-1936 (1937). This history of the Comintern was highly critical of Stalin's 1924 pronouncement, "Socialism in One Country" and provided support for the ideas of Leon Trotsky. His study of the Haitian revolution, The Black Jacobins, was published in 1938.

James moved to the United States in October 1938. He lectured on political issues and continued to published books about politics including Dialectical Materialism and the Fate of Humanity (1947), Notes on Dialectics (1948),The Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Problem in the USA (1948), State Capitalism and World Revolution (1950) and The Class Struggle (1950). James also wrote extensively about the work of Walt Whitman and Herman Melville.

The Marxist writings of James upset Joseph McCarthy and fellow right-wingers and he was eventually deported from the United States. James lived for a while in Africa but in 1958 returned to the West Indies. Influenced by the events of the Hungarian Rising in 1956, this book Facing Reality (1958) reveals a disillusionment with both Communism and Trotskyism. During this period he worked on a biography of George Padmore and parts of the book appeared in The Nation journal.

In 1963 James published Beyond a Boundary. The book is a combination of autobiography and a detailed analysis of sport and politics. Other books by James include Radical America (1970) and Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution (1977) and Radical America (1970).

Cyril Lional Robert James moved back to London and died in Brixton in May, 1989.

Primary Sources

(1) C. L. R. James, Beyond a Boundary (1963)

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.

(2) C. L. R. James, The Case for West Indian Self-Government (1933)

The Negroid population of the West Indies is composed of a large percentage of actually black people, and about fifteen or twenty per cent of people who are a varying combination of white and black. From the days of slavery, these have always claimed superiority to the ordinary black, and a substantial majority of them still do so (though resenting as bitterly as the black assumptions of white superiority). With emancipation in 1834 the blacks themselves established a middle class. But between the brown-skinned middle class and the black there is a continual rivalry, distrust and ill-feeling, which, skillfully played upon by the European people, poisons the life of the community. Where so many crosses and colours meet and mingle, the shades are naturally difficult to determine and the resulting confusion is immense. There are the nearly-white hanging on tooth and nail to the fringes of white society, and these, as is easy to understand, hate contact with the darker skin far more than some of the broader-minded whites. Then there are the browns, intermediates, who cannot by any stretch of imagination pass as white, but who will not go one inch towards mixing with people darker than themselves. And so on, and on, and on. Associations are formed of brown people who will not admit into their number those too much darker than themselves, and there have been heated arguments in committee as to whether such and such a person's skin was fair enough to allow him or her to be admitted without lowering the tone of the institution. Clubs have been known to accept the daughter and mother who were fair, but refuse the father, who was black A dark-skinned brother in a fair-skinned family is sometimes the subject of jeers and insults and open intimations that his presence is not required at the family social functions. Fair-skinned girls who marry dark men are often ostracised by their families and given up as lost. There have been cases of fair women who have been content to live with black men but would not marry them. Should the darker man, however, have money or position of some kind, he may aspire, and it is not too much to say that in a West Indian colony the surest sign of a man's having arrived is the fact that he keeps company with people lighter in complexion than himself. Remember, finally, that the people most affected by this are people of the middle class who, lacking the hard contact with realities of the masses and unable to attain to the freedoms of a leisured class, are more than all types of people given to trivial divisions and subdivisions of social rank and precedence. Here lies, perhaps, the gravest drawback of the coloured population. They find it difficult to combine, for it is the class that should in the natural course of things supply the leaders that is so rent and torn by these colour distinctions.

(3) C. L. R. James, Abyssinia and the Imperialists (1936)

Africans and people of African descent, especially those who have been poisoned by British imperialist education, needed a lesson. They have got it. Every succeeding day shows exactly the real motives which move imperialism in its contact with Africa, shows the incredible savagery and duplicity of European imperialism in its quest for markets and raw materials. Let the lesson sink in deep.

European imperialism has been after Abyssinia for fifty years. What do they want it for? They want it, first of all, for the minerals that are there, to plant cotton, to send some of their surplus population to the highlands, to make the natives buy Lancashire goods, or German goods or Italian goods, as the case might be, to invest money and then tax the native so as to make him pay a steady interest. All this they call developing the country and raising the standard of civilisation. They build a few schools and a few hospitals. Some few of the richer natives get jobs in the government service and come to European universities for education. They are pointed out as evidence of the high standard of civilisation that has been introduced into the native country.

But all the money that the imperialists are making out of the country has to be paid for by labour, and the real sufferers are those millions who, unprotected by trade union organisation or any sort of organised public opinion, are driven off their lands, down into mines at a shilling a day, or working above ground for fourpence a day as in Kenya, with all the special humiliations and degradations that are attached to the African in Africa, not because he is black, but because the imperialist despite his guns and cruisers, is in such mortal fear of the indignation of these people that he builds up in every possible way a wall of defence between himself and them. First of all, he has his cruisers always about, his aeroplanes and his trained soldiers. But in addition he insists always to his own people that they are superior to the exploited races, and he insists always to the exploited races that they are inferior to his own. Thus he reinforces the power of arms by democratizing the mentality of those whom he uses for his purposes both at home and abroad.

(4) C. L. R. James, Stalin and Socialism (1937)

In the Testament, Lenin, as superior to his contemporaries in grasp of men as of politics, had warned the party of a probable split between Trotsky and Stalin. It was, he said, a trifle, but "a trifle as may acquire a decisive significance." Lenin believed in historical materialism but he did not underestimate the significance of individuals, and the full immensity of the consequences are visible today.

Yet, as Lenin, quite obviously saw, the immediate origin of the danger was personal. Lenin did not say so in so many words. The Testament is very carefully phrased, but all through the civil war there had been clashes between Trotsky and Stalin. Stalin, with Zinoviev and Kamenev, who supported him at first, hated Trotsky, but Stalin hated him with a hatred which saw in him the chief obstacle to his power; Zinoviev and Kamenev Stalin knew he could manage. Zinoviev on his part feared Trotsky, but feared Stalin also. He had the idea of balancing one against the other. But he went with Stalin for the time being. What manner of man was this who was so soon to usurp Lenin's position and attempt to play Lenin's part? No man of this generation, few men of any other, could have done this adequately.

Lenin, first and foremost, knew political economy as few professors in a university did. He was-absolute master of political theory and practice. He knew the international working class movement of the great countries of Europe, not only their history theoretically interpreted by historical materialism, but from years of personal experience in Britain, France, Germany and Switzerland. He spoke almost faultless German and wrote the language like a second tongue. He was at home in French and English and could read other European languages with ease. Intellectual honesty was with him a fanatical passion, and to his basic conception of allying the highest results of his theoretical and practical knowledge in the party to the instinctive movements of millions, honesty before the party and before the masses was for him essential. The range and honesty of his intellect, his power of will, the singular selflessness and devotion of his personal character, added to a great knowledge and understanding of men, enabled him to use all types of intellect and character in a way that helped to lift the Bolshevik party between 1917 and 1923 to the full height of the stupendous role it was called upon to fulfill. No body of men ever did so much, and how small most of them really were we can realise only by looking at what they became the moment their master left them. Lenin made them what they were. He was sly and manoeuvred as all who have to manage men must manoeuvre. But through all the disagreements of those years which often reached breaking-point he never calumniated, exiled, imprisoned or murdered any leaders of his party. He was bitter in denunciation, often unfair, but never personally malicious. He was merciless to political enemies, but he called them enemies, and proclaimed aloud that if they opposed the Soviet regime he would shoot them and keep on shooting them. But Trotsky tells us how careful he was of the health of his colleagues; hard as he was it is easy to feel in his speeches, on occasions when the party was being torn by disputes, a man of strong emotions and sensitiveness to human personality. In his private life he set an unassuming example of personal incorruptibility and austere living. No man could ever fill his place, but it was not impossible that someone able and willing to act in his tradition could have carried on where he left off, and all knew that Trotsky was best fitted for that difficult post. Lenin had designated him as such in the Testament. But the irony, the cruellest tragedy of the post-war world is, that without a break the leadership of the over-centralised and politically dominant Bolshevik party passed from one of the highest representatives of European culture to another who, in every respect except singlemindedness of purpose, was the very antithesis of his predecessor.

(5) C. L. R. James, Dialectical Materialism and the Fate of Humanity (1947)

Mankind has obviously reached the end of something. The crisis is absolute. Bourgeois civilisation is falling apart, and even while it collapses, devotes its main energies to the preparation of further holocausts. Not remote states on the periphery but regimes contending for world power achieve the most advanced stages of barbarism known to history. What civilised states have ever approached Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia in official lies, official murder and the systematic brutalisation and corruption of their population? Only a shallow empiricism can fail to see that such monstrous societies are not the product of a national peculiarity (the German character) or a system of government ("communism") but are part and parcel of our civilisation. Everything that has appeared in these monstrous societies is endemic in every contemporary nation. Millions in the United States know that Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia will have nothing to teach the American bourgeoisie when it finds itself threatened by the revolutionary American workers seeking the complete expression of democracy which is socialism. The dream of progress has become the fear of progress. Men shrink with terror at the hint of scientific discoveries. If it were known tomorrow that the crown of human technical achievement, the processes of manufacturing atomic energy, had been lost beyond recovery, this scientific disaster would be hailed as the greatest good fortune of decades.

But the seal of the bankruptcy of bourgeois civilisation is the bankruptcy of its thought. Its intellectuals run to and fro squealing like hens in a barnyard when a plane passes overhead. Not a single philosopher or publicist has any light to throw on a crisis in which the fate not of a civilisation but of civilisation itself is involved.

(6) C. L. R. James, Whitman and Melville (1933)

Whitman is the most comprehensive of the American intellectuals of this period, one of the most unusual figures in the realm of literature and an American who is the opposite pole to Melville. Like Melville he embodies American and international characteristics; like Melville what he represents, what he expressed is clearer than ever today. But whereas Melville grows from year to year, Whitman shrinks. This poet, with the reputation of having devoted his life and work to the struggle for American and world democracy, may yet end by being excoriated by the popular masses everywhere, if they take any notice of him at all. He is, on the surface, an enigmatic figure. But there is no enigma about him really. We have to ignore all the things Whitman said about himself and depend entirely upon the literature as literature - by watching that we shall be able to reconstruct the real Whitman.

(7) C. L. R. James, letter (18th November, 1956)

The news of the last days from Hungary has come to a climax this morning. We have now seen what, in my opinion, is the decisive turning point in modern history. The first was the Paris revolution of 1849; the second was the Commune; the third was the Russian October Revolution. This Hungarian revolution is the last, and incomparably the greatest, of them all.

If you look at the Sunday Times editorial you will see that the bourgeoisie knows that something final has happened to Stalinism which it calls the World Revolution. That is doomed. The editor also sees that the proletarian revolution is unconquerable; but he does not recognise that as the World Revolution. So much the worse for him.

Before the first proletarian revolution, Marx in 1848 drew the conclusion of the dictatorship of the proletariat. It was abstract. He refused to concretise it. When the Commune took place he said, "There, that, is the dictatorship of the proletariat." Now we today are faced with the task of drawing the conclusions from this greatest of all revolutions, and doing so in a manner that restores revolutionary Marxism to the place which it had lost - the vanguard of political thought as a guide to action. The proposed ten page pamphlet is not enough; we have to do something on the scale of Marx writing about the Paris Commune.

These are the things that are new - new in that they have appeared in full flower where they were only embryonic before:

1. The working class, in backward Hungary, is at the head of the nation. You will see that the intellectuals have called for a government of workers' committees and freedom fighters, with a musical composer as a figurehead - presumably to give tone. This is new and the historical process has no farther to go. This is the historical dialectic at its clearest. For whereas formerly the intellectuals and the vanguard party fanatics recognised that only the workers could overthrow the regime, they took it for granted that only they could rule. But they have been driven to call for rule by workers' committees, because the revolution has so destroyed the bourgeois state that it is obvious that nothing else but the workers can rule. Hungary, whatever happens, has established this once and for all.

2. The writer of the Sunday Times editorial talks about human bravery, readiness to die etc. He is a follower of the Trotskyites. The reasons for this endurance are the character of capitalism in its form of state capitalism. We have to root the bravery in the contemporary social structure.

3. Following from the above points is the disappearance of "the Party" and "the unions". The Party has consistently led workers to disaster since 1922. If the Party, any party, had been in charge, it would have ruined the revolution. Furthermore, if even it had been successful in overthrowing the regime, no party in the world would have dared to fight the Russians a second time, or decided on the general strike which is unparalleled in the whole history of revolution.

You see what has to be written. These conclusions have to be drawn from the modern world and their development, since 1848, traced in a strictly dialectical manner. I believe that the whole of Central Europe, including West Germany, wants to break with the Russian alliance, to have nothing to do with the western powers and to build socialism on the basis of workers' power. As I write, an irrational but overwhelming feeling comes over me that I wish Lenin was alive today. Not to do anything, but to see it - just to see how the proletariat is now the only class that has programme, policy and will; while the others pass resolutions and stand impotent, cowardly and utterly degraded. Note, too, that North Africa is boiling. France is on the verge of a catastrophic crisis and the Arab states are blowing up pipelines, blocking the Suez Canal, etc. - torn between the intrigues of the United States, Britain and France on the one hand and Russia on the other. Nasser and the others will not last long. The Communists are very strong in certain countries of the Middle East, but one must learn to understand history. After Hungary, they cannot hold power anywhere near Europe for long. There will be defeats, setbacks, compromises; but the permanent revolution is on its way once more. It is the permanent revolution not of 1848 or 1917, but of 1956.

(8) C. L. R. James, Notes on the Life of George Padmore (1959)

Padmore first went to Fisk University and later to Howard, the black university in Washington D.C. By this time he had become a militant revolutionary. One day Esme Howard, the British Ambassador, was due to pay a visit to Howard University. In those days that was a great event and the black professors prepared a distinguished welcome for their visitor. Padmore, however, had had printed a set of leaflets which described in fierce terms the oppression of British imperialism in Africa. When the procession of dignitaries appeared, he suddenly stepped out from among the students and threw the leaflets in front of the British Ambassador, some say into his face. Padmore was not expelled as one would expect, but he abandoned his academic career and he next appeared as a paid functionary in the American Communist Party.

George adopted the Communist doctrine completely and became very expert in it. People who knew him then agree that he was a great militant - active, devoted and fearless. The complaint of George, and most of the other blacks in the Communist Party, was that the leaders never understood that the Negro question had racial connotations which demanded special consideration by a political organization - however much this organization might aim to work for the equality of all mankind. This was the problem which formed the axis of George's career as a Marxist. Nevertheless, whatever the doubts were about George's strict Communist orthodoxy on the Negro question, by 1930 he was created head of the Negro department of the Profintern, with his headquarters in the Kremlin. He held that post until 1935, and if he had done nothing else his place in black history would still be safe.

(9) C. L. R. James, speech on Black Power in London in 1967.

Black Power. I believe that this slogan is destined to become one of the great political slogans of our time. Of course, only time itself can tell that. Nevertheless, when we see how powerful an impact this slogan has made it is obvious that it touches very sensitive nerves in the political consciousness of the world today. This evening I do not intend to tell you that it is your political duty to fight against racial consciousness in the British people; or that you must seek ways and means to expose and put an end to the racialist policies of the present Labour government. If you are not doing that already I don't see that this meeting will help you to greater political activity. That is not the particular purpose of this meeting though, as you shall hear, there will be specific aims and concrete proposals. What I aim to do this evening is to make clear to all of us what this slogan Black Power means, what it does not mean, cannot mean; and I say quite plainly, we must get rid, once and for all, of a vast amount of confusion which is arising, copiously, both from the right and also from the left. Now I shall tell you quite precisely what I intend to do this evening. The subject is extremely wide, comprising hundreds of millions of people, and therefore in the course of an address of about an hour or so, we had better begin by being very precise about what is going to be said and what is not going to be said.

But before I outline, so to speak, the premises on which I will build, I want to say a few words about Stokely Carmichael: I think I ought to say Stokely because everybody, everywhere, calls him Stokely which I think is a political fact of some importance. The slogan Black Power, beginning in the United States and spreading from there elsewhere, is undoubtedly closely associated with him and with those who are fighting with him. But for us in Britain his name, whether we like it or not, means more than that. It is undoubtedly his presence here, and the impact that he has made in his speeches and his conversations, that have made the slogan Black Power reverberate in the way that it is doing in political Britain - and even outside of that, in Britain in general. And I want to begin by making a particular reference to Stokely which, fortunately, I am in a position to make. And I do this because on the whole in public speaking, in writing (and also to a large degree in private conversation), I usually avoid, take great care to avoid placing any emphasis on a personality in politics.

I was reading the other day Professor Levi-Strauss and in a very sharp attack on historical conceptions prevalent today, I saw him say that the description of personality, or of the anecdote (which so many people of my acquaintance historically and politically live by) were the lowest forms of history. With much satisfaction I agreed; I have been saying so for nearly half a century. But then he went on to place the political personality within a context that I thought was misleading, and it seemed to me that in avoiding it as much as I have done, I was making a mistake, if not so much in writing, certainly in public speech. And that is why I begin what I have to say, and will spend a certain amount of time, on one of the most remarkable personalities of contemporary politics. And I am happy to say that I did not have to wait until Stokely came here to understand the force which he symbolizes.

I heard him speak in Canada at Sir George Williams University in March of this year. There were about one thousand people present, chiefly white students, about sixty or seventy Negro people, and I was so struck by what he was saying and the way he was saying it (a thing which does not happen to me politically very often) that I sat down immediately and took the unusual step of writing a letter to him, a political letter. After all, he was a young man of twenty-three or twenty-four and I was old enough to be his grandfather and, as I say, I thought I had a few things to tell him which would be of use to him and, through him, the movement he represented.

(10) Anna Grimshaw, C. L. R. James: A Revolutionary Vision for the Twentieth Century (1992)

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.