C. L. R. James Showed Us How to Write About the Social History of Sports

Beyond a Boundary turned 60 this year. The classic book by C. L. R. James used cricket as a window into the history of the West Indies as its people liberated themselves from British colonial rule, defying racism to find their place in the world as equals.

The West Indies Cricket Team takes to the field in London, England, 1928. (Central Press / Hulton Archive via Getty Images)

C. L. R. James took Marxism into new territory, not once but twice, with two classic works. The Black Jacobins, published in 1938, was an exhilarating account of the revolt against slavery in Haiti that pointed toward the anti-colonial movements of the postwar period. James himself helped nurture those movements through his political activism and connections with men like George Padmore and Kwame Nkrumah.

Twenty-five years later, James published a very different kind of book. Beyond a Boundary tackled the relationship between cricket and West Indian society and laid down a marker for Marxist writing about sport. Six decades after its first publication, Beyond a Boundary is still a brilliant model for how to write about popular culture.

More Than a Game

Marxist critics before James tended to focus on cultural forms like art and literature. He had made his own contribution to that body of writing with a study of Herman Melville. Why did he now opt to write about cricket?

As the book makes clear, the game had played a crucial role in the path followed by James since his childhood. Born in Trinidad when it was still a British colony, he could see at close quarters how cricket became a channel for the nascent struggle against racism and colonial rule:

Social and political passions, denied normal outlets, expressed themselves so fiercely in cricket (and other games) precisely because they were games. . . . The cricket field was a stage on which selected individuals played representative roles which were charged with social significance.

There was something very particular about the geographical spread of cricket that gave it strong political undertones during and after the period covered by James. Soccer and cricket both originated in Britain during its heyday as the global superpower, but the former soon became the world’s most popular sport and no longer had any direct association with British rule. High-level cricket, on the other hand, remains confined to Britain and its former colonies.

There is a fierce rivalry in Test cricket between England and Australia, dating back to the nineteenth century and enduring to this day. But Australia is still a country where the majority of the population is white, English-speaking, and descended from European settlers. Its political system and level of economic development place it in the same geopolitical category as Britain, and the two states have been happy to serve together as Washington’s junior partners since the end of empire.

In the West Indies, by contrast, black cricket players were descended from Africans who had been enslaved and transported across the Atlantic to work on plantations. When James was born, the British ruling class considered it absurd to suggest that Trinidad, Jamaica, or Guyana might one day govern themselves. The people of the West Indies had to fight for their independence against the entrenched resistance of British colonial power, just like the cricketing nations of South Asia.

One chapter of Beyond a Boundary describes how the cricket clubs of Trinidad were organized in an elaborate hierarchy of race and class. Shannon was the club of the dark-skinned lower-middle class, “the teacher, the law clerk, the worker in the printing office and here and there a clerk in a department store.” According to James, the Shannon cricketers were conscious that they bore a special responsibility beyond the realm of sport:

They played as if they knew that their skill represented the great mass of black people in the island. . . . As clearly as if it was written across the sky, their play said: Here, on the cricket field if nowhere else, all men in the island are equal, and we are the best men in the island.

Having grown up in this context, James was naturally contemptuous of those who claimed that cricket had nothing to do with politics: “They are blind to the grandeur of a game which, in lands far from that which gave it birth, could encompass so much of social reality and still remain a game.”

A Little to the Left

The sporting culture of the West Indies made it possible for star players to remain in close contact with the society that produced them. As James explained:

All of us knew our West Indian cricketers, so to speak, from birth, when they made their first century, when they became engaged, if they drank whisky instead of rum. A Test player with all his gifts was not a personage remote, to be read about in papers and worshipped from afar. They were all over the place, ready to play in any match, ready to talk.

As a young cricket journalist and occasional player, James befriended one of those stars, Learie Constantine. When Constantine went to play for a northern English team in a town called Nelson, he asked James to stay with him as a lodger. Constantine helped James to find work as a cricket correspondent for the Manchester Guardian (as it was then), and they worked together on Constantine’s book Cricket and I. James also wrote a book making the case for West Indian self-government and published it with Constantine’s financial support.

In Beyond a Boundary, James described the impact of this novel environment on his worldview:

I soon made friends in the local Labour Party, attended their meetings, spoke to them. Some of Constantine’s intimate friends who came to the house often found congenial company in me, apart from cricket. My Labour and Socialist ideas had been got from books and were rather abstract. These humorously cynical working men were a revelation and brought me down to earth. Learie listened sympathetically, commenting with discretion but laughing a lot.

There is a lovely moment in a 1976 documentary about Beyond a Boundary where James returns to Nelson four decades on. He sits in the stand at the cricket ground, chatting with some old lags from the town who remember his time with Constantine as if it were yesterday.

One of them brings up the political speeches that James used to deliver and asks with a chuckle if it would be fair to describe him as having been “a little to the left.”

“I should think somewhat more than a little,” replies James. The man then asks him if he has “matured” or “mellowed” since the 1930s. “I have developed” is the sardonic response.

It was during his time in Britain that James made vital contacts in Trotskyist and Pan-African circles, while also conducting the research that made it possible to write The Black Jacobins. One motivation for writing Beyond a Boundary must have been a sense of gratitude to the sport that had shaped his political outlook and supplied opportunities for work, travel, and personal development that might otherwise have been denied to the son of a black teacher from colonial Trinidad.

Sport and Social History

However, his main reason for writing the book was a firm belief that cricket and sport in general had not received adequate coverage in the literature to date. Although he owed a major political and intellectual debt to Leon Trotsky, James strongly rejected his view of organized sport as a distraction from the class struggle: “Trotsky had said that the workers were deflected from politics by sports. With my past I simply could not accept that.”

For James, Trotsky’s myopia was just one example of a wider failure to grasp the importance of sport as a mass phenomenon from the nineteenth century onwards. He noted that historians like G. M. Trevelyan and G. D. H. Cole could write about the social history of Victorian England yet “never once mention the man who was the best-known Englishman of his time,” the cricketer W. G. Grace. To fill this gap, he devoted an entire chapter to Grace as a sporting hero-cum-celebrity of the kind that has since become so familiar.

In writing about the link between sport and society, James echoed a famous remark by Antonio Gramsci, who observed in his Prison Notebooks that anyone who wants to write the history of a political party must write the history of an entire country in monographic form:

Wilton St Hill and Learie Constantine were more than makers of runs and takers of wickets to the people of Trinidad and Tobago. Who will write a biography of Sir Donald Bradman must be able to write a history of Australia in the same period.

He made a passionate case for the virtues of cricket as a sport that combined individual and collective struggle between opposing teams:

The batsman facing the ball does not merely represent his side. For that moment, to all intents and purposes, he is his side. This fundamental relation of the One and the Many, Individual and Social, Individual and Universal, leader and followers, representative and ranks, the part and the whole, is structurally imposed on the players of cricket. What other sports, games and arts have to aim at, the players are given to start with, they cannot depart from it.

James also ventured a theory grounded in human evolution to explain the appeal of sport at its very best:

We respond to physical action or vivid representation of it, dead or alive, because we are made that way. For unknown centuries survival for us, like all other animals, depended upon competent and effective physical activity. This played its part in developing the brain. The particular nature which became ours did not rest satisfied with this. If it had it could never have become human. The use of the hand, the extension of its powers by the tool, the propulsion of a missile at some objective and the accompanying refinements of the mechanics of judgement, these marked us off from the animals.

Future Hopes

The closing chapters of the book descend from the heights of sporting abstraction to a very concrete issue: the captaincy of the West Indies cricket team. When James wrote Beyond a Boundary, the islands of the Caribbean were in the process of gaining their independence from Britain, and black players already dominated the West Indian side. Yet there was a tacit convention that the captain had to be a white man.

Having returned to Trinidad at the invitation of his old friend Eric Williams, James used his position as a newspaper editor to challenge this convention head-on, taking up the cudgels on behalf of Frank Worrell, who eventually became the first black player to captain the West Indies team. James dismissed the idea that righteous passion of the kind he was expressing had no place in a sport like cricket:

When I confessed I was angry, even sympathizers balked at this. According to the code, anger should not intrude into cricket. I understood them well, I had been as foolish in my time. According to the colonial version of the code, you were to show yourself a “true sport” by not making a fuss about the most barefaced discrimination because it wasn’t cricket. Not me any longer. To that I had said, was saying, my final good-bye.

He saw cricket as a crucial factor in the development of West Indian political consciousness: “West Indians crowding to Tests bring with them the whole past history and future hopes of the islands.”

The battle over the captaincy proved to be a curtain raiser for the true heyday of West Indian cricket, which came in the decades after Beyond a Boundary was published. Throughout the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, the West Indian side was unquestionably the strongest force in world cricket, handing out some memorable thrashings to the former colonial masters on their home territory. Players like Clive Lloyd, Viv Richards, and Michael Holding became some of the all-time greats of the sport.

As the documentary Fire in Babylon and the book of the same title show very well, what made this period of West Indian cricket supremacy so memorable and exciting was the fact that it overlapped with social and political currents from outside the world of sport. Viv Richards was clear about the motivation he took onto the pitch:

I have always thought about African history. The Zulu Wars. Malcolm X got me fired up, the Black Panthers — all these things these guys were doing. And I remember realizing what was going on in the southern United States in particular, what people had to put up with just to survive.

There was a furious backlash when a group of mostly second-tier West Indian cricketers accepted a massive financial inducement to break the sporting boycott of apartheid South Africa in the 1980s. Michael Holding described the rogue players as “traitors” who were “selling out the region,” while Richards said that he was prouder of his refusal to join the South African tour than anything else in his career.


In 1991, as the West Indian players arrived in England for another tour, the British journalist David Frith expressed precisely the same view about the intrusion of anger on the cricket pitch that James had scornfully rejected three decades earlier:

These matches have long since become manifestations of the racial tensions that exist in the world outside the cricket-ground gates. Just when the cricketers of both sides should be teaching ordinary folk how to co-exist and enjoy honourable sports combat, a damaging counter-image emerges.

Frith later recalled a conversation with Richards in a way that spoke volumes about his own complacency:

He was a born athlete, Viv Richards. He surely could have gone out there and done just as well and retained his cool. I wish he didn’t get angry so often because I believed in him. But after that evening I was left quite worried, I thought, Well, he’s talking to young kids, and if he preaches that sort of stuff, the world’s not going to be a very peaceful place.

One can easily imagine the short work that James would have made of this argument and its underlying assumptions.

In any case, the long period of supremacy was about to come to an end. The US writer Mike Marqusee wrote about the subsequent downturn of West Indian cricket on the occasion of another Test series in 2004. As Marqusee pointed out, the comparative slump in form was much easier to account for than the long years of success that came before it:

It was always remarkable that a sequence of world-beaters should have sprung from such an impoverished, economically marginal and fragmented society. The cricketing entity we call the West Indies is comprised of a dozen sovereign nations with a total population of under six million and a combined GDP of only $31 billion. . . . In sport, as in the arts, size and wealth do count, but not for everything. Take Barbados, an island with a population of 250,000 — the size of a single London borough. It gave the game at least a dozen of its modern masters.

Since the late 1990s, success in the cricket World Cup has been a monopoly of the sport’s wealthiest nations — Australia, England, and India. The West Indies didn’t even qualify for this year’s tournament.

A Lost World

Mike Marqusee himself was a worthy heir to C. L. R. James as a Marxist historian of sport. Along with his wonderful study of Muhammad Ali, Redemption Song, Marqusee published two widely acclaimed books about cricket, Anyone but England and War Minus the Shooting, which followed the example set by James, using sport as a window into politics and social history.

In 2013, Marqusee returned to the question of West Indian cricket in the global order to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Beyond a Boundary, asking himself what James would have made of the years that followed:

He’d note in the fall of West Indies cricket the absence of those factors that had made for its rise, among them, the anti-colonial movement. Later cricketers, emerging from a West Indian society battered and fragmented by a globalised economy, could not match the ambition, creativity and commitment of a generation determined to liberate themselves from a colonial and racist order.

James recounts the way even the most celebrated West Indian cricketers of his day mingled with the general population and shared its reference points. That easy intercourse is long gone, even in the West Indies. Sports celebrity as it’s lived today, in a world of gated communities and five-star uniformity, precludes the formation of the kind of links lovingly examined in Beyond a Boundary.

The social conditions that made it possible for the West Indies to dominate world cricket may no longer exist, but it remains one of the most compelling stories in the history of sport, and Beyond a Boundary is an essential part of it.