Paul Dorn: C.L.R. James Article
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A Controversial Caribbean: C.L.R. James
By Paul Dorn

Originally written for Caribbean Literature, taught Spring 1995 at the San Francisco Art Institute by Alexandra Morrison

Image of CLR James The intellectual legacy of Cyril Lionel Robert James is complex and controversial. Best known as the author of The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, James also made significant contributions in the fields of sport criticism, Caribbean history, literary criticism, Pan African politics and Marxist theory. [1] Though many academics and political activists have attempted to do so, it is impossible to isolate any one period of James' life as his true legacy. Many have lamented the lack of "a coherent sense of James' life as an integrated whole." [2]

James' political and literary activities extended over five decades and several countries - including Trinidad, Britain, the United States and Ghana. Such a long and extensive career easily lends itself to interpretative debate. Yet any accurate assessment of James' work must begin with his origins. Above all else, James was a quintessentially Caribbean writer. Like George Lamming, Jean Rhys and many others, James had to expatriate himself to reach an audience. His eclectic pursuits developed largely in response to his circumstances - to changing conditions in world politics and his personal situation. [3]

James was born on January 4, 1901 in Port of Spain, the largest city in colonial Trinidad. He spent most of his youth in the village of Tunapuna, eight miles outside the city. His father was a schoolteacher, a significant position in the colonial Caribbean, and his mother had been educated in a Weslyan convent. The status and education of his parents marked James as somewhat privileged in relation to the other residents of Tunapuna. As his biographer Paul Buhle writes:

His childhood was similar to that of most youth in the Caribbean except in two respects: he was a passionate and celebrated cricket player; and he had inherited an appreciation for literature from his parents. He read widely, including the Bible, all of Shakespeare's plays, and all six volumes of Havelock Ellis's The Psychology of Sex from cover to cover. [5] James could have easily received a scholarship to a university in England, but chose to remain in Trinidad. He received a school certificate from Queen's Royal College in 1918, and immediately became a schoolmaster. He was highly respected as a teacher, and once staged a full version of Shakespeare's Othello with his class to ensure his students understood it for their preparatory exams. [6] Intelligent and handsome, James circulated in the island's modest young bohemian milieu. He attended plays and concerts (his favorites included Verdi, Beethoven as well as Calypso), contributed essays and cricket reports to small magazines, and became known as something of an authority on literary matters.

James eventually grew restless, and set off for Britain in 1932 to pursue a career as a writer. There he became a cricket correspondent for the Manchester Guardian and later the Glasgow Herald. He soon became involved in political activity. James joined the social democratic Independent Labour Party (ILP) and became the editor of International African Opinion, a journal published by the International African Service Bureau. Very quickly, James went beyond the politics of the ILP and began to consider himself an anti-Stalinist Marxist. He claimed to have been converted to Marxism by two books: Leon Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution and Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West. [7]

Upon his conversion, James joined the Revolutionary Socialist League, a small organization affiliated with the Trotskyist Left Opposition, and later became editor of its newspaper, Fight. The Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 led James to initiate his life-long attempt to synthesize of Pan Africanism and Marxism. At the time of his conversion to Trotskyism, James considered them to be virtually synonymous.

In 1938 James completed the manuscript of his most important work, The Black Jacobins. To a Euro-American audience still in serious denial about the reality of slavery, James graphically revealed the brutality inflicted by nascent capitalism. The Black Jacobins also refuted much of the mythology surrounding racial inferiority being debated - from eugenics to fascism - by that same Euro-American audience. James showed how even in the most degraded circumstances, slave society had cultivated a leadership that included such figures as Toussaint L'Ouverture, Jean-Jacque Dessalines and Henri Christophe. The significance of The Black Jacobins is indicated by one writer:

In 1938 James attended the founding conference of the Trotskyist Fourth International in Paris. James P. Cannon, one of the founders of the American Communist Party (CPUSA) who had split to launch the Trotskyist opposition in the US, invited James to visit the US for a speaking tour on the Black struggle. James remained in North America for the next 15 years, where the international Trotskyist movement had its largest - fewer than 1000 members - organization, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP).

During this period James held several discussions with Trotsky, who was then living in exile in Mexico, on issues in the struggle against racial oppression. These discussions helped shape the SWP's political work against racism. During 1941 James also spent several months as a lecturer and pamphleteer for striking sharecroppers in southern Missouri. [11] In anticipation of tactics used in the 1960s civil rights movement, James urged Blacks to enter segregated restaurants, "ordering, for instance, some coffee," launching a sit-down and campaigning around the issue.

In 1948 James wrote The Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Problem in the USA, which was published as a pamphlet by the SWP. The document clarified the party's position on racism, and distinguished it from the contradictory positions of the Stalinist CPUSA. The Stalinists urged Blacks to subordinate racial issues for the sake of class issues and advocated self-determination for the "Black Belt," regardless of the reluctance of southern Blacks themselves to demand nationhood. James wrote:

James remained a committed advocate of Trotskyism while the working class movement was ascendant from the 1930s through the post-WWII strike wave. However, as class struggle began to decline, James started to identify more with the emerging nationalism of Africa and the Caribbean. In 1941 James left the SWP - he rejoined in 1947 before leaving for good in the early 1950s - and formed the Johnson-Forest Tendency with philosopher Raya Dunayevskaya and others. [13] The group translated sections of Marx's 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, attempted to insert Hegelian philosophy more directly into Marxist discussion, and developed a "state capitalist" analysis of the Soviet Union. [14] By the mid-1950s, the Johnson-Forest Tendency had broken from Trotskyism's insistence on a revolutionary party, and attempted to create a new type of Marxist organization. [15] James began to advocate a loose form of struggle, which one writer has termed a "celebration of spontaneity." [16]

James was expelled from the United States in 1953 for alleged passport violations. For the remainder of his life he would continue to develop and advocate an idiosyncratic Marxism. He lived in England for a time, and in 1958 returned to Trinidad, where he became a leading intellectual figure in the national independence movement. He pointed to the 1956 Hungarian revolution as proof that a revolutionary party was no longer needed to lead workers to victory. He hailed Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana as "Africa's Lenin" only to see his regime overthrown in a military coup. He joined Eric Williams' post-colonial government in Trinidad, only to break with him and be bitterly disappointed. He lectured at US and European colleges and continued to write until his death in London in 1989.

C.L.R. James was quintessentially a Caribbean writer. This was at once both his strength and his weakness. Like many cultural figures who emerge from a colonial milieu, James reflected a contradictory consciousness torn between the metropole and the colony. He was never able to synthesize these opposites.

One of James' most important influences was the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. Like James, Trotsky applied a "European" ideology - Marxism - to the political culture of an underdeveloped nation (Russia). Trotsky then went on to use the methodology of Marxism to generalize the Russian experience into a broader political strategy - Permanent Revolution - for liberation struggles in all underdeveloped and oppressed countries.

In contrast to Trotsky, James came late to a political understanding of his life. Having intimate experience with the debilitating colonial system, James was a consistent and committed activist against imperialism. However, he drew his political analysis, not from his Caribbean roots, but from the global stage. James developed his politics from the general to the specific. As a result, James was unable to maintain a consistent analysis, which has resulted in the controversy surrounding his intellectual legacy: where Black nationalists, socialists, Marxists and academics all contend for his imprimatur.


1. His books included World Revolution, 1917-1936 (1937), a polemic against Stalinism written at the height of his attraction to Trotskyism; Beyond a Boundary (1953), a major study of cricket; Mariners, Renegades and Castaways: Herman Melville and the World We Live In (1953), a cultural study that anticipates much of postmodern theory; Party Politics in the West Indies (1962), written as his native Trinidad gained independence; and Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution (1977), an analysis of the triumph and failure of Africa's independence movement. Back to text

2. One example is James biographer Kent Worcester, who reported on an April 1991 conference at Wellesley College attended by, among others poet Derek Walcott, former British Labour Party leader Michael Foot, and historian Martin Glaberman. According to Worcester, the conference broke down in raucous arguments over James' "alleged Eurocentrism and the relationship between his Marxist politics and the concrete needs of Black and Third World social movements." Kent Worcester, "C.L.R. James: His Intellectual Legacies," Against the Current, November/December 1991. Back to text

3. Assessing his career, James remarked: "My contributions have been - number one, to clarify and extend the heritage of Marx and Lenin. And number two, to expand the idea of what constitutes the new society." Quoted in Ahmed Shawki, "Black Liberation and Socialism in the US," International Socialism #47, London, Summer 1990. Back to text

4. Paul Buhle, C.L.R. James: The Artist as Revolutionary, Verso, London, 1988, pg. 15. Back to text

5. Ibid, pg. 21. Back to text

6. Ibid, pg. 22. One of his students was the Trinidad writer and political leader Eric Williams, with whom James maintained a 40-year-long friendship. Back to text

7. Alex Callinicos, Trotskyism, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1990, pg. 62. Back to text

8. Quoted in Shawki, op cit., pg. 59. Back to text

9. Quoted in ibid., pg. 59. Back to text

10. Callinicos, op cit., pg. 63. Back to text

11. Kent Worcester, in Encyclopedia of the American Left, edited by Mari Jo Buhle, Paul Buhle and Dan Georgakas, Garland Publishing, Inc., New York, 1990, pg. 387. Back to text

12. Shawki, op cit., pg. 63. Back to text

13. "Johnson" was the "party name" of James; "Forest" that of Dunayevskaya. Worcester, op cit., pg. 387. Back to text

14. Right up to his death in 1940, Trotsky maintained his concept of the Soviet Union as a "workers' state," though admittedly the Stalinist bureaucracy caused considerable degeneration. Despite the excesses of the apparatchiks, Trotsky felt there were elements of the Soviet economy - state ownership of property, state control of foreign trade, centralized planning, etc. - that were progressive gains of the October Revolution. The state capitalist theory saw the Soviet Union as a form of exploitative society, directed by a privileged ruling elite - the Communist Party bureaucracy - who were analogous to the bourgeoisie of market capitalism. The state capitalism analysis of James-Dunayevskaya differed from that of other political tendencies that viewed the Soviet Union as state capitalist. See for example Tony Cliff, State Capitalism in Russia, Bookmarks, London, 1990 (originally published in 1948). Back to text

15. Worcester, "CLR James: His Intellectual Legacies," op cit., pg. 35. The Johnson-Forest Tendency continued to exert some influence into the 1970s, especially with the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM). See Callinicos, op cit., pg. 62. Back to text

16. Shawki, op cit., pg. 65. Back to text

17. Quoted in ibid., pg. 65. Back to text

18. Callinicos, op cit., pg. 66. Back to text

19. Buhle, op cit., pg. 2. Back to text


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