C.L.R. James, Man of Paradox

The Dialectician

The paradoxes of C.L.R. James.


Cyril Lionel Robert James was a man of paradox. The Trinidadian-born revolutionary was a lanky 6-foot-3—“lean as a pole,” with “long pianist fingers” that one could easily imagine flying across a typewriter keyboard as well. However, as we learn in John Williams’s new biography, CLR James: A Life Beyond the Boundaries, he “never learned to type and relied on women to type up his handwritten articles and manuscripts,” of which there was a veritable tsunami. Likewise, while James cared little for money and possessions—other than books and albums—he was a connoisseur of exquisite wine and tasty meals. A fierce “anti-Stalinist,” he still collaborated fruitfully in 1930s London with the decidedly Russophilic Paul Robeson, widely suspected of being a member of the Communist Party, and he recommended the writings of US Communist historian Herbert Aptheker and hailed the later work of W.E.B. Du Bois, even after he joined the US Communist Party in 1961.

Although James is associated in the popular imagination with Trotskyism, when he met with Trotsky during the latter’s exile in Mexico before his 1940 assassination, the defrocked Soviet leader was unimpressed, dismissing James as a “freelance bohemian.” James’s erstwhile Trotskyist comrade, James Cannon, referred to him similarly as an “irresponsible adventurer.”

Whatever his fellow Trotskyists thought of him, the fact remains that James was one of the most brilliant thinkers and writers among them, a man whose books, including The Black Jacobins, proved to be of staggering profundity. Although for generations, revolutionaries and thinkers of various sorts had championed movements of the dispossessed, James was one of the first to point out the world-historical significance of the Haitian Revolution—a precedent-shattering development spearheaded by unpaid workers. The Black Jacobins alone guaranteed James a slot in the Pan-African—and revolutionary—pantheon. As a playwright, he stirred London audiences in the 1930s with his dramatization of the life of Toussaint Louverture. His only novel, Minty Alley, published after he arrived in Britain, is a sensitive depiction of the poor—especially poor women—and an adroit evocation of the trickster, with echoes of Shakespeare’s Puck and Twain’s Tom Sawyer. His fecund Beyond a Boundary is not just a memoir of his Caribbean boyhood, a celebration of cricket, and an indictment of colonialism; it also served to inspire the thriving academic field that is cultural studies. As a philosopher, while he was in a self-imposed exile in Nevada in the late 1940s, James grappled adroitly with Hegel and his reverberations in the work of Marx and Lenin. As a literary critic, his excavation of Melville continues to repay attention. Assuredly, James was one of the 20th century’s foremost radical intellectuals.

C.L.R. James was born in 1901, as Queen Victoria’s life was coming to an end, and died in 1989, a few months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. At the time of his birth, his homeland—the archipelago of Trinidad and Tobago—was still an uneasy component of the British Empire. James’s melanin content represented a legacy of the African slave trade: Apparently, he was partly of French ancestry, which may shed light on why he studied the language of Robespierre and Toussaint, even though English was his native tongue. As a young athlete, James set the high-jump record in Trinidad and Tobago, and would hold it for years after he left the islands—a harbinger of the heights to which he would soar.

James was also a voracious reader from an early age, and it proved to be a lifelong habit: The lengthy list of his frequently consulted journals included The Nation, which he pored over in the public library.

By 1932, at the age of 31, James had arrived in Britain. He had left the Caribbean partly to escape an unfulfilling marriage and partly to seek his fortune in a land that offered more opportunities for the budding writer that he had become. In Britain, he was deeply influenced by the atmosphere of intellectual and political ferment generated by a bevy of exiles there, including Robeson and Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya. It was in Britain that James encountered Trotsky’s newly published History of the Russian Revolution, which inspired his own work on Haiti. By 1933 and ‘34, he was spending months at a time in France working on his magnum opus. His research assistant was Eric Williams, a former pupil during James’s brief time teaching in Trinidad, whose own book Capitalism and Slavery would later have an importance comparable to that of The Black Jacobins in recovering the history of exploitation and revolutionary resistance in the Caribbean. While in France, James also consulted with Alfred Auguste Nemours, the legendary Haitian general, diplomat, and military historian, and with Léon-Gontran Damas, the poet, politician, and cofounder of the “Negritude” movement.

Evidently, it was James’s French sojourn that led him ever closer to the ideas of Trotsky, though in a glaring omission in this otherwise relatively well researched biography, Williams doesn’t offer us a clear explanation of why, among the luminous coterie of Black intellectuals and activists in this period—not just Robeson and Kenyatta but James’s fellow Trinidadian Claudia Jones; Langston Hughes; W.E.B. Du Bois and his spouse, Shirley Graham; Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana; Nelson Mandela of South Africa; and others—only James failed to be attracted by the then-hegemonic Communist parties and instead remained a Trotskyist for years. Perhaps this is a result of Williams’s own highly skeptical views on Trotskyism, which he calls a “marginal faith” involving “endless splits over points of genuine principle, leading to an array of tiny parties….largely impotent in the face of the great events around them.” But if Williams had dug a bit deeper, he might have ascertained that Trotsky had resided in France as early as 1902 and had returned there while James was in the country for his research. The Socialist Party, which has intermittently been a ruling party in France, was also influenced by this Ukrainian’s ideas and presence as a united front against fascism developed. (Indeed, the former Socialist Party leader Lionel Jospin, who narrowly lost a race for the French presidency in 1995, had his own Trotskyist ties, and even today, the former Trotskyist Jean-Luc Mélenchon has mounted a credible challenge during the recent presidential elections for the Élysée Palace.)

James’s embrace of Trotskyism was paired with an intense survey of European philosophy and social thought. He studied Hegel in these years. He was also drawn to the larger canon of European thinkers interested in the concept of “freedom.” Marx in particular captured his imagination; it was in Marx that Hegel’s ideas of freedom became a sturdy theory of revolution based on the organization and self-assertion of workers, and it also led James to consider the plight of Black workers in particular.

The unifying thread that runs through James’s vast body of work was a focus on this proletarianized “race” and racialized working class whose objective position, he argued, made it the potential locomotive for revolutionary socialism, just as the unpaid workers of Haiti were the true engine of the overthrow of slavery. Adapting Lenin’s byword, James concurred that “Every cook can govern,” those of African ancestry not least.

Reading these European thinkers, however, James was also struck by the fact that, despite their interest in the political and moral progress of freedom, they had little to say about a deeper expression of this idea as embodied in the Haitian Revolution. This was true not only of Marx but of that icon of the American left, Thomas Paine. As the late Haitian scholar Michel-Rolph Trouillot notes in his trailblazing Silencing the Past, this muzzling of the profundity of the Haitian Revolution was an important chapter in a larger narrative of global domination.

The Black Jacobins set out to correct this elision. In its riveting pages, James sought to make Africans active subjects of their own history rather than passive objects of others’ history. Building on James’s pathbreaking book, a new generation of scholars have argued that the Haitian Revolution precipitated a general crisis of the entire slave system in the Western Hemisphere—including in the United States—that could end only in its collapse, which I addressed in my book Confronting Black Jacobins. Not coincidentally, the struggle for the eight-hour workday and the drive to organize labor unions both accelerated in the United States post-abolition, suggesting the importance of the victory of unpaid workers in the Caribbean.

The Black Jacobins established James’s bona fides as an important Marxist and historian, but it also demonstrated the magnitude of this revolution in the Caribbean and departed to a considerable extent from the “orthodox” Marxist evaluations of Haiti that did not engage with its significance. The Black Jacobins’ account of revolution may also have further solidified its author’s Trotskyism in that, just as the Ukrainian Trotsky diverged from the “orthodox” Communist parties, the Trinidadian James diverged from the “orthodox” downplaying of the Haitian Revolution. Trotskyists famously disputed the notion that socialism could be built in one nation and thus posited the idea of “permanent revolution,” forever extending its boundaries in order to extend the reach of socialism. Ironically, the debilitated state of Haiti after the revolution—surrounded by enslaving regimes, just as the Soviet Union was encircled, and suffering grievously as a result—arguably served to fortify James’s initial embrace of Trotsky’s foundational idea.

Like his fellow Trinidadian Eric Williams, James sought to deflate the still-prevalent notion that the abolition of slavery represented a triumph of activism in the metropole rather than a triumph of activism by the oppressed. John Williams observes further that James “intended his account of the Haitian Revolution to be both a history and a blueprint for revolutions of the future.”

After spending six years in Britain barely making a living as a writer, James moved to the United States in 1938—specifically to Harlem in New York City—and stayed in the country for the next 15 years. There he was a popular campus speaker, a tireless writer, and a dedicated (though not altogether successful) organizer.

For a thinker so inquisitive and incisive, James showed a surprising lack of interest in the implications of World War II. As Williams notes, he “paid oddly little attention to either the Bomb or the Holocaust”—unusual for an intellectual who was effortlessly prolific in his writings and concerns and who was surrounded by a left in the United States keenly disturbed by both.

This may have had something to do with James’s dour view of the Soviet Union, a US ally during the war. Between 1941 and ’45, there was a remarkable decline in anti-Sovietism in the United States, as symbolized by the still-startling pro-Stalin Hollywood film Mission to Moscow. Shortly before the war erupted, James had published World Revolution, 1917–1936, a bitter philippic assailing Stalin and the Soviet Union in such hostile terms that even his anti-fascist publisher questioned the book’s arguments in view of the emerging pro-Moscow wartime alliance. Williams goes further and characterizes aspects of James’s view of the war as “morally bankrupt.”

Still, what occupied much of James’s attention in the early postwar years—though the seeds had been planted during the war—was the so-called “Johnson-Forest Tendency,” which sprouted out of Trotskyist politics but also in some ways broke from it. James was the pseudonymous “Johnson,” and “Forest” was Trotsky’s former secretary, Raya Dunayevskaya; they helped formulate a position that eventually encompassed dozens of cadres—including Grace Boggs, who diverged from the Trotskyists in the Socialist Workers Party on a number of crucial matters. Together they sought to establish a base in Detroit, indicative of proletarian aspirations and in the heart of an industrial center then ready to be radicalized.

In addition to being a historian, philosopher, novelist, playwright, and revolutionary, James was also a cultural critic. His memoir Beyond a Boundary, which includes a sociopolitical analysis of cricket along with its indictment of colonialism and is often characterized as one of the most insightful books on sports ever written, later became a foundational text for cultural studies, serving as an exemplar of the field’s interdisciplinarity and its project of exploring the political dynamics of contemporary culture—especially popular culture.

Strangely, as with many of the books by James discussed in Williams’s biography, readers won’t glean much about why Beyond a Boundary was so important. Instead, we learn more about the author’s private life than his public one. Williams tells us how James “spent a lot of energy in the pursuit of women and continued to do so throughout his life,” and he depicts at some length “the many young women—always young women,” he adds leeringly—“selected to act as his secretary.” James was “something of a cult leader,” Williams asserts disparagingly, comparing him to a “guru.” As a result, we miss some of James’s important ideas as well as the twists and turns in his life during this period. Williams offers us a detailed description of James’s postwar stay in Nevada, when he was in the process of getting a divorce, but pays scant attention to the fact that this was also when he wrote Notes on Dialectics, a meditation on the Hegelian roots of Marx’s and Lenin’s thinking that James considered among his most important works and that—à la The Black Jacobins—further affirmed the transformative role of labor in the making of history.

James’s fortunes in the United States would wax and wane. Fifteen years after emigrating, James was interned on Ellis Island in 1953 and, facing deportation, left the country. Though his citizenship application was rejected because of alleged visa violations, there were political reasons as well.This setback led to one of his finest hours, for James returned to London, then worked alongside his former student and researcher Eric Williams, who was then an anti-colonial rebel politician on his way to becoming prime minister and steering his homeland to independence. James served as a spark plug in the creation of a print organ for Williams’s new party, the People’s National Movement—one that rather rapidly attained a circulation of 12,000 and, as James put it, “the confidence of a large majority of the population.”

After returning to Trinidad and Tobago in 1958, James also served as secretary of the West Indies Federal Labour Party, an ambitious Pan-Caribbean formation that sought to forge a federation out of the region’s disparate islands and territories, including the bulwark that was Jamaica. This effort did not succeed, but today’s CARICOM—an influential body that liaises regularly with the African Union, headquartered in Addis Ababa—is a proof of James’s vision.

Eventually, James was able to return to the United States after his unceremonious ouster in the ’50s, teaching at what was then Federal City College in Washington, D.C., for most of the 1970and serving as an inspiration for a rising generation of Black Power acolytes. Over the years, he consorted with a vast array of African Americans, from Detroit autoworkers to figures like Richard Wright, James Baldwin (whom he referred to as “the outcast little Negro switch,” which was obviously not a compliment), Martin Luther King Jr. (with whom James was impressed), Maya Angelou (less impressed), and Alice Walker (quite impressed). He also continued to be a globe-trotter, spending time in his native Trinidad and in socialist Cuba before dying in Brixton—London’s Harlem—in 1989.

Although James saw further than most when limning the epochal implications of the Haitian Revolution, he managed to commit serious errors and lapses of judgment in other spheres. Like many intellectuals, he was a figure of unresolved contradictions. As James the dialectician might have said: These types of contradictions are inherent in all matters, and certainly in politics. No one can escape them, try as they might—not even a radical shouting from the rooftops about revolution and socialism.

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply-reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish everyday at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy