Celebrating C.L.R. James in Hackney
It's been over 20 years since C.L.R. James's passing (1901 -1989), yet he remains one of the twentieth century's most remarkable figures. Historian, Marxist Theoretician, Playwright, Novelist, Journalist, Orator, Political Activist, Cultural Critic, and Sports Writer – the sheer diversity of his accomplishments and richness of his writing ensure that there will always be much to inspire about the extraordinary life and work of this outstanding Caribbean internationalist.
Early Years and Family Life
Cyril Lionel Robert James, first child of Robert Alexander and Elizabeth James was born on 4th January 1901 in Chaguanas, Trinidad while the island was still a colony of the British Empire. His father was a schoolteacher, a significant position in the colonial Caribbean, and his mother had been educated in a Wesleyan convent.
His childhood was similar to that of most youth in the Caribbean except in two respects: he was a passionate cricket fan and player (the family home was close to a cricket field, and the young ‘Nello’ - as he was nicknamed, spent as much time as possible on the playing field as well as watching the practices and games, developing an encyclopaedic knowledge of the game's history) ; and he had inherited a dedication to reading literature from his mother.
In 1910 CLR James won a scholarship to Queen’s Royal College, the government secondary school, in Port of Spain, and on graduation, became a history teacher there, teaching among others the young Eric Williams, later the first Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago.
Whilst a lecturer at the Government Teachers Training College in Port of Spain, CLR James married his first wife Juanita Young in 1929. But in 1932, he moved to Lancashire, England, to take up the offer of work as a biographer for his friend, West Indian cricketer Learie Constantine.
He was invited to be a cricket reporter for the (then Manchester) Guardian and the Glasgow Herald and moved to London, where he joined the Independent Labour Party and the Trotskyist Left.James was invited to go on a lecture tour in America from Britain in 1938. He met Constance Webb, who was to become his second wife, in 1939.
CLR and Constance married in November 1948 and on the 4th April 1949 celebrated the birth of their son CLR James Junior, who they affectionately referred to as Nobby.
But by 1953, when James was forced to leave the United States the relationship had ended. He returned to Britain and he and Constance were divorced, though they always remained on friendly terms.
In 1956 James married his third wife Selma Weinstein (née Deitch) after she joined him in England in 1955, with her six-year-old son Sam.She had been a member of the Johnson-Forest Tendency which he led. The couple were close political colleagues and together for almost 30 years, after which they lived apart.
Early Writings, Political Writings and Activity and US Career
Prior to sailing from the West Indies to England in 1932, CLR James had already established himself as a writer and literary critic at home in Trinidad. His early writings include a series of short stories: Triumph, La Divina Pastora and Turner’s Prosperity. He had also helped publish two issues of The Beacon, a literary journal whose circle of writers campaigned for the independence of the West Indies.
On his journey to England, James brought with him the unpublished manuscript of the biography of Arthur Andrew Cipriani, the President of the Trinidad Workingmen’s Association. The great cricketer Learie Constantine, with his wife Norma, James’s host in Nelson, Lancashire, paid for it to be published in the Caribbean under the title of The Life of Captain Cipriani: An Account of British Government in the West Indies.
On being offered the job as cricket correspondent for the Manchester Guardian, James moved to London in 1933. Around this time, Hogarth Press (the publishing house of Leonard and Virginia Woolf) published The Case for West Indian Self-Government, a shortened version of The Life of Captain Cipriani.
James then went on to join the Independent Labour Party (ILP) until he studied Marxism and decided to join the Trotskyist Marxist Group in 1934.In 1935, he helped form the International African Friends of Abyssinia , which campaigned against the Italian Fascist army’s invasion of the country. This small organisation, set up with George Padmore, Amy Ashwood Garvey, Ras Makonnen, Jomo Kenyatta, I.T. A. Wallace-Johnson and a few others, and later renamed International African Friends of Ethiopia, was to have a major influence on the development and radicalisation of Pan -Africanism.
In 1936 James visited France to research the Haitian Revolution and during this period wrote the play Toussaint L’Ouverture: the story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History which was staged in the West End and starred Paul Robeson as the great Haitian revolutionary leader and had James in a minor role. That same year also saw the publication in London of James's only novel, Minty Alley, which he had brought with him in manuscript from Trinidad. It was the first novel to be published by a black Caribbean author in the UK. During this year James and his Trotskyist Marxist Group also left the Independent Labour Party to form an open party.
In 1937, the International African Service Bureau (IASB) emerged from the International African Friends of Abyssinia and James edited the IASB monthly journal, International African Opinion, as well as the Trotskyist periodical Fight. He then went on to write World Revolution, The rise and fall of the Communist International, which was critically praised by Leon Trotsky; and in 1938 he followed this with his best-known work of non-fiction: The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, a widely acclaimed history of the Haitian Revolution. The book helped to establish James’s reputation as a historian and was later seen as a seminal text in the study of the African Diaspora. During this time James’s party took part in several mergers to form the Revolutionary Socialist League and James was invited to tour the United States by the leadership of the Socialist Workers' Party, then the US section of the Fourth International, to facilitate its work among Black workers.
The Johnson-Forest Tendency
During 1939, in his early days in the US, James adopted the pseudonym J.R. Johnson and fully immersed himself in organizational politics within the small milieu of the US Trotskyist movement. He went to Mexico to meet with Leon Trotsky to discuss the prospects for Black liberation in the United States and elsewhere and during these discussions presciently outlined how a civil rights movement might develop in America. For example, describing how a lunch counter protest might help desegregate restaurants in the South. But by 1940, James began to doubt Trotsky's view of the Soviet Union as a degenerated workers state, so he left the Socialist Workers Party along with Max Shachtman, who formed the Workers' Party. Then in 1940 he formed the Johnson-Forest Tendency, a political grouping within the Workers Party with Raya Dunayevskaya (Leon Trotsky's former Russian language secretary). The tendency argued that the Soviet Union was 'state capitalist', while the Workers Party majority maintained that it was ‘bureaucratic collectivist’.
During 1941 and 1942, James assisted a group of Black sharecroppers in Missouri to write their own pamphlet and to organise as they prepared to go on strike. He spent hours listening to industrial workers throughout the country, especially in Detroit where his Tendency was based. He also studied American culture and history, in particular the Civil War, and wrote scores of articles for Marxist journals on many subjects.
In 1943 James met Kwame Nkrumah (later to become the first President of Ghana), who was then a student at Lincoln University. He sent a letter of introduction to George Padmore (renowned Trinidadian Pan-African anti-imperialist organiser) when Nkrumah left the US for the UK and Nkrumah later credited James with teaching him 'how an underground movement worked'.After World War II, the Johnson-Forest Tendency were encouraged by the prospects for revolutionary change for oppressed peoples, and were opposed to the intellectualism of the Workers Party. So in 1947 the Johnson-Forest Tendency rejoined the Socialist Workers' Party, who they regarded as more proletarian. But James still described himself as a Leninist and argued for socialists to support the emerging Black and Third World movements. But by 1949 he and his organisation had rejected the idea of a vanguard party. This led the Johnson-Forest Tendency to leave Trotskyism in 1951and rename itself Correspondence, the name of its popular newspaper.
By that time the McCarthy witch-hunts of all leftwing people dominated US politics. Many socialists were deported, and James was declared a subversive and undesirable alien. He was arrested in 1952 and jailed for several weeks on Ellis Island, New York, a detention centre for immigrants fighting deportation. He wrote a book of literary criticism about Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, while in detention, and after being released, published Mariners, Renegades and Castaways: the story of Herman Melville and the World we live In, published in 1953. A copy was sent to every member of Congress as part of his case against deportation. He also delivered an acclaimed series of lectures at Columbia University, but in that summer, his appeal for U.S. citizenship was turned down and he returned to London to become a cricket reporter once again for the Manchester Guardian.
In 1954 James’s associates in the US launched a bi-weekly newspaper, Correspondence which was written by and disseminated among the grassroots.
In 1957 he was invited to the Ghana independence celebrations by its first president, his old friend Kwame Nkrumah. In Ghana, James met Martin Luther King and invited Mr and Mrs King to his home in London to discuss the Montgomery bus boycott.
He was invited to attend the celebrations of West Indian Federation in 1958. When his former student Dr Eric Williams became chief minister of Trinidad, he asked James to stay and to edit The Nation newspaper for the pro-independence People's National Movement (PNM). He also became secretary of the West Indian Federal Labour Party. In 1960 James published Modern Politics, a series of lectures at the Port of Spain Library. He broke with Dr Williams after basic disagreements over winning back Chaguaramas, the American base, and over whether to stay in the West Indian Federation, to which James was dedicated.
James and his wife were Nkrumah’s guests when Ghana celebrated becoming a republic in 1960, and is quoted as saying that the Ghana revolution was inspiring for all revolutionaries around the world.
On the eve of Trinidadian independence on 31 August 1962, they returned to London. Beyond A Boundary was published in 1963. James had been working on it for six or seven years. as well as making the case for cricket as an art, and for sport as a critical part of modern life.
1963 - James publishes his autobiographical book, Beyond a Boundary. This is considered the seminal work on the game and was named by John Arlott as the best single book on cricket (or even the best book on any sport) written. In it, James discusses the importance of cricket to the British character and to the development of the West Indies, It is so gracefully written that even baseball-centric Americans can read it with pleasure -- it limned a picture of life in Trinidad during the early years of the 20th century; and at the same time places cricket in an historical and social context, describing how cricket has influenced his own life, and how it meshed with his role in politics and his understanding of issues of class and race.
In 1965, reporting Test cricket in the West Indies for The Observer, he was put under house arrest for some weeks by Prime Minister Eric Williams. This provoked widespread protests. No charges were ever laid.
From 1968 James returns to the United States to lecture, first at North Western University in Illinois. He lectures widely and teaches for some years at Federal City College, now the University of the District of Columbia, during the period of Martin Luther King’s assassination and the rise of Malcolm X and the militant Black Panther Party. James supports the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC) leader Stokely Carmichael, also from Trinidad, who advocate Black Power. He remains there during term time for a further 12 years.
In the 1970 and 1980s a number of books by James were republished or reissued by Allison & Busby, including four volumes of selected writings: The Future in the Present, Spheres of Existence, At the Rendezvous of Victory, Cricket (an anthology of essays), and Notes on the Hegelian Dialectic. In 1977 they publish Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution (revised 1982).
In 1981 James returns to London eventually settling in Brixton. In the 1980s he was awarded an honorary Doctorate from South Bank Polytechnic (later to become the University of the South bank, in London) for his body of socio-political works including that relating to race and sport. He is also given a doctorate from the University of the West Indies in Barbados.
In 1983, a short British film featuring James in dialogue with the historian E.P.Thompson is made.
The C.L.R. James Institute, based in New York and affiliated to the Centre for African Studies at Cambridge University is founded with James's blessing by Jim Murray in 1983.
In 1985 a public library in the London Borough of Hackney, London is re-named in his honour, James attended the library's naming ceremony and his widow, Selma James attended a reception there to mark its 20th anniversary in 2005.
In 1986, James is awarded the Trinity Cross, the highest distinction in Trinidad.
1989 CLR James dies in Brixton, London and is buried in Trinidad.
The Brixton Pound, a currency in use in Brixton only and created in an effort to keep money local and support local and independent traders, has a picture of C.L.R. James on the £10 note.
In 2004 a blue plaque was unveiled by English Heritage at his residence in Brixton. The plaque reads C.L.R. James, 1901 – 1989 West Indian Writer and Political Activist lived and died here.
In 2011, CLR James Library is to be replaced by the brand new state of the art Dalston CLR James Library and Archives. As a part of the new library, there will be a permanent exhibition to chronicle his life and works and an annual event in his memory.
BibliographyMajor works (in order of original publication):
Minty Alley (London: New Beacon, 1971 )
World Revolution 1917-1936: The Rise and Fall of the Communist International (Nendeln: Kraus, 1970 )
The Black Jacobins: Touissant L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (London: Allison & Busby, 1980 )
A History of Pan African Revolt (London: Race Today, 1986 )
The Invading Socialist Society, written in collaboration with Raya Dunayevskaya and Grace Lee Boggs (Detroit: Bewick, 1972 )
Notes on Dialectics: Hegel, Marx and Lenin (London: Allison & Busby, 1981 )
State capitalism and World Revolution, written in collaboration with Raya Dunayevskaya and Grace Lee Boggs (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 1986 )
Mariners, Renegades and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In (London: Allison & Busby, 1986 )
Facing Reality (Detroit: Bewick, 1973 )
Modern Politics (Detroit: Bewick, 1973 )
Beyond a Boundary (New York: Pantheon, 1983 )
Kwame Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution (London: Allison & Busby, 1962)
Selected works in three volumes:
The Future in the Present (London: Allison & Busby, 1977)
Spheres of Existence (London: Allison & Busby, 1980)
At the Rendezvous of Victory (London: Allison & Busby, 1984)
Other editions of selected writings:
Cricket, ed. By Anna Grimshaw (London: Allison & Busby, 1986)
The C. L. R. James Reader, ed. By Anna Grimshaw (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992)
C. L. R. James and Revolutionary Marxism: Selected Writings of C. L. R. James 1939-1949 (Revolutionary Studies), ed. by Scott McLemee and Paul Le Blanc (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 1994)
C. L. R. James and the Negro Question, ed. by Scott McLemee (Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 1996)
Marxism for Our Times: C. L. R. James on Revolutionary Organization, ed. by Martin Glaberman (Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 1999)
Books on C. L. R. James:
Paul Buhle, ed., C. L. R. James: His Life and Work (London: Allison & Busby, 1986)
Paul Buhle, C. L. R. James: The Artist as Revolutionary (London and New York: Verso, 1986)
Henry Paget and Paul Buhle, eds, C. L. R. James’s Caribbean (Durham: Duke University Press, 1992)
Selwyn Reginald Cudjoe and William E. Cain, eds, C. L. R. James: His Intellectual Legacies (Harvard, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995)
Grant Farred, ed., Rethinking C L. R. James (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996)
Ken Worcester, C. L. R. James: A Political Biography (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1996)
Anthony Bogues, Caliban’s Freedom (London: Pluto, 1997)
Aldon Lynn Nielsen, C. L. R. James: A Critical Introduction (Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 1997)
Nicole King, C. L. R. James and Creolization: Circles of Influence (Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 2001)
Farrukh Dhondy, C. L. R. James: A Life (New York: Pantheon, 2002)