C. L. R. James Broke Through the World’s Boundaries

C. L. R. James spent his life crossing the boundary lines of race and class, from the colonial Caribbean to Britain and the United States. The world is finally starting to catch up with his pioneering works of Marxist history.

C. L. R. James in 1938. (Wikimedia Commons)

We are now a third of a century or so since the passing of C. L. R. James (1901–89), and just as long since the appearance of the “authorized” biography, hastily prepared to be published in his lifetime. In the decades since, many volumes and many, many more scholarly essays and contemplative commentaries on various aspects of his life and work, have continued to appear.

It is no exaggeration to say that John L. Williams’s book C. L. R. James: A Life Beyond the Boundaries is a landmark. From now on, everyone interested in James, his ideas, and his activities will need to start here.

Reaching Over the Divides

A talented journalist and nonprofessorial scholar, Williams makes only one mistake of note. On the very first page, he insists that the aged James, arriving back in London in the early 1980s, was already “yesterday’s man,” forgotten for decades and rediscovered only as the end of his life approached.

Not so. From the later 1960s, when a new legal status in the United States allowed him to take a university position and travel freely, James had been as continuously on the road as health and finances allowed. Audiences in the hundreds and sometimes thousands, overwhelmingly young, thrilled to his evocations of past radical and revolutionary history, and his promise of what remained possible.

He successfully recast himself as the survivor of a black history that included forgotten or misunderstood political leaders and thinkers, a history that could now, at last, be valued and used. Like Herbert Marcuse, but with less fame, he reached over the generational divides, embracing students and other activists more than fifty years his junior.

Never mind our quibble with the author. Or accept the idea that perhaps in London of 1980, James really had been forgotten. As Williams nevertheless notes, James’s reappearance or pre-reappearance really begins with a new paperback edition of The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution in 1963.

Hailed as a work of distinguished scholarship on its 1938 appearance, a parallel in many ways with W. E. B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America, 1860–1880 published three years earlier, The Black Jacobins had afterward languished. Editor André Schiffrin, at Pantheon Books, met the new interest in black history stirred by the civil rights movement with an offer of a revised edition. James updated the scholarship and wrote a new preface hailing the Cuban Revolution as a fresh start in the Caribbean. It was a campus hit.

I was on a public bus in Barbados in 1990 and noticed a schoolboy with a copy. It was assigned reading for him, and a good assignment, the story of a historic black leader and his successful revolutionary movement, written with the skill of a novelist and a scholar in archives. The schoolboy would not likely have known how much inspiration James derived from Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution or that the author had actually been an important regional novelist and literary avant gardist before turning to scholarship. This, for biographer Williams, is the wonder, or at least one of the wonders.

From First to Last

Obscure at least from 1940 until the 1960s, James had already lived enough for a handful of global radicals. In his own terms, James was a revolutionary from first (or at least from his early ’30s) to last, and Williams is understandably skeptical about James’s particular visions of change and the small-scale movements supporting him. Nevertheless intrigued, the author managed to dig further, to find more than dozens of other scholars and commentators about what made James tick and how he moved through the worlds of politics and culture.

Not much of that story can be told here. James himself offered some of it in his mixture of sports-history commentary and memoir, Beyond a Boundary (1963), easily one of the most thoughtful books on sports written anywhere, any time.

A schoolmaster’s rebellious son in Trinidad, jet-black descendant of slaves and of the respectable middle class, he imbibed English literature and even classics during his young years, becoming a teacher with a sideline in the regional literature only just emerging. James had only begun his interest in the independence movement of his home island when he traveled to the UK in 1932 to make his way in the world.

Williams’s James encounters many prospects, emphatically including romantic ones — a Lancashire woman remembers him as staggeringly handsome and obviously available, during his time there assisting cricket giant Learie Constantine on a memoir — but also political ones. The fact that he became a mover in the world of British anti-colonialism, an orator, a playwright, and the author of The Black Jacobins and a history book known as “the Bible of Trotskyism,” World Revolution, 1917–1936, all within a few years, remains breathtaking. He also took the time to write a short book embracing the history of black nationalism, A History of Pan-African Revolt.

The following part of James’s life, largely unfolding in the United States until his departure under McCarthyite pressure in 1953, offers Williams a greater tangle. This James chose to be leader of a microcosmic section of Trotskyists within a Trotskyist movement already small in numbers, creating a narrative that still strikes many readers of Left history as baffling.

Williams navigates the details through an intimate reading of James’s personal relations (here, too, romance plays no small role) over the decades, and the story could best be described, perhaps, as “group dynamics.” The author’s sometimes distaff take on those dynamics has James freely writing and lecturing, traveling widely, and even taking vacations — with the indulgence, that is to say, financial support and admiration bordering upon the cultic, of his small entourage.

It requires a certain credulity to accept the historical importance, to James and his followers, of the study of Marx’s 1844 “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts,” actually providing the first English translations of extended passages for the sake of Detroit autoworkers. Williams gamely goes along, but he stumbles a bit on the real value of the little group around James launching their own Detroit-based tabloid embracing popular culture, youth rebellion, and women’s rising militance, along with wildcat strikes.

The author regains his balance with James banished from the United States, living mainly in London and coming around to newer movements. These included the hopes raised briefly by the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 and the more sustained anti-colonialism of Ghana and of the civil rights movement in the United States.

Final Years

Williams offers considerable space but less than adequate insight into the individuals who obviously helped make it possible. Consider among others Grace Lee Boggs, who Barack Obama honored posthumously on her passing in 2015. One of the very first Asian American women to receive a PhD in philosophy, a wartime factory militant, Boggs later became herself a larger-than-life figure within Detroit, joining and sometimes leading every emerging social movement for almost a half-century.

Or take the Russian-born Raya Dunayevskaya, the erstwhile secretary to Trotsky in Mexico, destined to interpret Hegelian philosophy as a gateway to a higher feminism, and, like Boggs, the leader of her own small entity. They were strange by any political or personal definition and they both broke with James in the end. But they were also formidable women, a detail that demands, in itself, some further pondering.

“Personal politics” often prevail in these pages, understandably but sometimes overwhelmingly. Accounts of his marriages and separations, his incapacities as a father, or his renewed pressing upon followers for financial support threaten to overpower his role, for instance, as the editor of the Trinidadian independence movement’s newspaper in the early moments of island self-government. In his utterly unique way, James was only continuing his peripatetic life’s project.

In the end, living in Brixton, London, above the editorial and production office of his nephew Darcus Howe’s magazine Race Today, James continued to give forth his views to the press and anyone who would come to listen. He seemed like a greying prophet of a revolution arising from the Global South but moving into the rest of the world, a revolution stymied and, by the time of his death, widely regarded as inconceivable. Then again, for the far more numerous viewers of sports on BBC, James would always be “the cricket man,” aged but astute, offering his opinions of play, usually in some kind of historical context.

Williams is at his strongest describing the final years of the aged savant, and it is interesting that he finds here the most sympathetic, indeed historical “C. L. R.” If his greatest talent and most attractive talent may always have been “the natural flow of unscripted commentary,” he offered it freely to a wide range of visitors, famous and obscure alike. Leading cricketers, both West Indian and British; television producers and mainstream journalists; left-wing intellectuals, both famous and unfamous, gathered at his bedside and listened to him with the rapt attention of his grouplets decades earlier.

James, Williams says in the final pages, should be remembered not only as a major thinker but a major prose stylist. A teacher who could persuade almost any serious listener to take an interest in Aeschylus and Shakespeare but also W. M. Thackeray (whose Vanity Fair he had enjoyed since childhood) and William Hazlitt, the master critic, he had continued to offer listeners extended excerpts while speaking, for instance, of Du Bois or Lenin. He wanted his captive audience to listen deeply.