C. L. R. James Never Gave Up on His Dream of Revolution

C. L. R. James loved seeing workers take ownership of culture that was thought to belong to their betters. He believed in the creative talents of workers, just as he believed in their power to secure their own liberation without direction from above.

C. L. R. James speaks on behalf of the International African Friends of Abyssinia at a rally in Trafalgar Square in London, August 25, 1935. (Keystone-France / Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

We learned to obey the umpire’s decision without question, however irrational it was. We learned to play with the team, which meant subordinating your personal inclinations, and even interests, for the good of the whole. We did not denounce failures, but “Well tried” or “Hard luck” came easily to our lips. We were generous to opponents and congratulated them on victories, even when we knew they did not deserve it.

— C. L. R. James, Beyond a Boundary

Through a lifetime of plotting to overthrow capitalism, there is just one recorded instance of Cyril Lionel Robert James using a swear word. His code of conduct was forged in colonial Trinidad by his violent and puritanical father, Queen’s Royal College, and, above all, the cricket field. Before he knew the names Leon Trotsky and Toussaint Louverture, James’s heroes were the novelist William Thackeray and the cricketer he pseudonymously refers to as Matthew Bondsman, a wayward youth blessed with a beautiful cut shot.

A Life Beyond the Boundaries, a new biography by John L. Williams, provides the most comprehensive and intimate portrayal yet of the iconic speaker, author, teacher, theorist, and revolutionary — “Nello” to his friends. This is a fond account that maintains a critical distance. James’s charisma as well as his intellect earned him a cult following, but Williams is careful not to sound smitten until the afterword. He draws on unpublished writing, letters to lovers and comrades, historic sleuthing, and accounts from people that knew James to shed new light on his beliefs, character, and relationships, as well as the stories behind the great and lesser works that form his legacy.

Politics were central to James’s life from his first encounter with the Trinidad Workingmen’s Association around 1930, as it campaigned for better treatment of black and Indian workers and self-government for the West Indies. Those moderate demands would give way to a quest for world revolution that took him from the Caribbean to London, Paris, New York, Ibadan, Havana, and back again.

He was a house guest of Leon Trotsky in Mexico and a confidant of Kwame Nkrumah, who celebrated Ghana’s independence alongside him. He shared stages with Stokely Carmichael as riots swept American cities in the 1960s. He witnessed the rise and fall of fascism, the end of Jim Crow and colonialism, and almost a century of revolutions.

None of this came at the expense of literature, music, or cricket, which James did not see as idle pleasures of the elite but a shared heritage for the enrichment of all. He took satisfaction from seeing the proletariat take ownership of cultural forms thought to belong to their betters, from West Indian steel bands playing Rimsky-Korsakov to young cricketers from the barrack yards beating the English at their own game. James believed in the creative talents of the working classes just as he believed in their power to secure their own liberation without direction from above, a view that informed his rejection of Stalinism and the Communist Party. He idealized the direct democracy of ancient Greece as the most perfect system.

“The essence of the Greek method was . . . to trust the intelligence and sense of justice of the population at large,” he wrote in the essay Every Cook Can Govern.

As a black traveler in Europe and the United States, James experienced racism in restaurants and on buses, where he was forced to change seats. He treated it as “something foul you occasionally stepped in and had to scrape off your shoes,” Williams observes. This was of a piece with a general disinterest in his own suffering — few confidant ever knew about the death of his first son in childbirth.

In London, he attributed racism to jealousy. “The English native is so dull and glum and generally boorish in his manners, that the girls turn with relief from these dreadful Englishmen to the smiling and good-natured West Indians,” he wrote. “At which the Englishman sits in the corner and scowls and makes himself as unpleasant as possible.”

James argued for the salience of race in his Marxist circles and class among black radicals, but believed in the primacy of the latter. “The race question is subsidiary to the class question in politics, and to think of imperialism in terms of race is disastrous,” he wrote in The Black Jacobins. “But to neglect the racial factor as merely incidental is an error only less grave than to make it fundamental.”

The working men of Paris would have fought alongside Toussaint Louverture against the empire, he claimed. His seminal account of the Haitian slave revolt, informed by months of research in French archives, was modeled on Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution.

James was based in England when The Black Jacobins was first published, having arrived in 1932 as an aide to West Indian cricketer Learie Constantine, who had earned a rare and lucrative contract to play in the county game. He was quickly at home, covering cricket for the Guardian, mixing with poets and radicals, and furthering his political education. His lifestyle seemed to include little sleep, but he was able to produce books such as The Case for West Indian Self-Government, and Minty Alley, his only novel and among the first published by a black West Indian. He directed Paul Robeson as Louverture in a play staged at Westminster Theatre.

But James moved to New York shortly before the outbreak of World War II, a move that spared him the blitz but was resented by British comrades who felt he had abandoned them at a time of crisis. The Black Jacobins was more popular across the Atlantic. James became influential within the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party in the United States, which gave him the alias Jimmy Johnson, before splitting to form the Johnson-Forest Tendency over the party’s allegiance to the USSR and neglect of the black struggle. He would later describe those years as the happiest of his life, studying Hegel’s dialectic on Hudson Street with his loyal followers, watching Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday in Harlem, earning the affections of model and actress Constance Webb, and fully convinced of the inevitability of revolution.

Clouds loitered on the horizon. As a subversive, James was living undocumented and could not travel, a source of stress that contributed to hospitalizations. He lacked a steady income — a problem that persisted throughout his career — and relied on wealthy benefactor Lyman Paine for support. The Johnson-Forest Tendency struggled for traction. Webb left James after a passionate courtship became a cold marriage, taking their young son, C. L. R. Jr, known as “Nobbie.”

In 1953, James was facing deportation from the United States and returned to London. There was little relief in familiar surroundings, apart from being able to watch cricket again. Old comrades treated James with suspicion. Health and money worries persisted. His attempts to steer Johnson-Forest from abroad foundered, and the faction split. Another marriage — to faction alumna Selma Weinstein — fizzled out.

James’s treatment of women receives close examination here. As a devilishly handsome, silver-tongued charmer, he was never short of admirers. He treated partners casually. He was never abusive but paid his wives little attention, immersed in his work and rarely pausing his affairs. Throughout his career, he made use of unpaid female assistants to type his thoughts and manage his administration. This was a flaw James himself recognized in later life and attempted to correct with greater focus on women’s contributions to the struggle.

He loved his son but was often absent, and Nobbie suffered a tragic fate. After living as an itinerant musician, he fell in with Scientologists — prompting a stern letter from James to L. Ron Hubbard. Nobbie was imprisoned for dodging the Vietnam draft, suffered a breakdown, and lived on the streets.

In his senior years, James finally found a measure of peace and recognition. He was an honored guest at the inauguration of the West Indian Federal Parliament and Ghana’s independence celebrations, and marked his sixty-seventh birthday at a festival in Cuba. James returned to Trinidad to discover a thriving literary scene, with writers such as V. S. Naipaul fulfilling his dream that the island could become a vibrant cultural hub.

James finally delivered a commercial success with his book on cricket, Beyond a Boundary, regarded as one of the greatest books on sport, which was turned into a BBC documentary watched by a million viewers. He was commissioned for lucrative professorships and speaking tours. James never suggested the delay in recognizing his contribution was due to racism, so Williams does it for him.

The final act was spent in a Brixton squat that served as the headquarters of Race Today, led by Darcus and Leila Hassan Howe, funded by Ken Livingstone’s radical Greater London Council. James was by then a revered figure for a new generation of activists who were inspired by his work. He received visits from Labour Party leader Michael Foot, Grenada’s revolutionary leader Maurice Bishop — “Don’t kill any nuns,” James advised him — Edward Said, and Ian Botham. He received so many visitors that “Tell them C. L. R. is dead” became a catchphrase.

Months before dying peacefully in his bed, James watched reports of the 1989 protests in China with great excitement. “The Chinese Communist Party will put down this uprising with great ease, but the Russians won’t hold on to Eastern Europe after this,” he predicted, six months before the Berlin Wall fell. Prescient to the last, and always convinced of the coming revolution.