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Review: The Paradoxes of CLR James


Cyril Lionel Robert James was a man of paradox. The Trinidadian-born revolutionary was a lanky 6-foot-3—“lean as a pole,” with “long pianist fingers” that one could easily imagine flying across a typewriter keyboard as well. However, as we learn in John Williams’s new biography, CLR James: A Life Beyond the Boundaries, he “never learned to type and relied on women to type up his handwritten articles and manuscripts,” of which there was a veritable tsunami. Likewise, while James cared little for money and possessions—other than books and albums—he was a connoisseur of exquisite wine and tasty meals. A fierce “anti-Stalinist,” he still collaborated fruitfully in 1930s London with the decidedly Russophilic Paul Robeson, widely suspected of being a member of the Communist Party, and he recommended the writings of US Communist historian Herbert Aptheker and hailed the later work of W.E.B. Du Bois, even after he joined the US Communist Party in 1961.

Although James is associated in the popular imagination with Trotskyism, when he met with Trotsky during the latter’s exile in Mexico before his 1940 assassination, the defrocked Soviet leader was unimpressed, dismissing James as a “freelance bohemian.” James’s erstwhile Trotskyist comrade, James Cannon, referred to him similarly as an “irresponsible adventurer.”

Whatever his fellow Trotskyists thought of him, the fact remains that James was one of the most brilliant thinkers and writers among them, a man whose books, including The Black Jacobins, proved to be of staggering profundity. Although for generations, revolutionaries and thinkers of various sorts had championed movements of the dispossessed, James was one of the first to point out the world-historical significance of the Haitian Revolution—a precedent-shattering development spearheaded by unpaid workers. The Black Jacobins alone guaranteed James a slot in the Pan-African—and revolutionary—pantheon. As a playwright, he stirred London audiences in the 1930s with his dramatization of the life of Toussaint Louverture. His only novel, Minty Alley, published after he arrived in Britain, is a sensitive depiction of the poor—especially poor women—and an adroit evocation of the trickster, with echoes of Shakespeare’s Puck and Twain’s Tom Sawyer. His fecund Beyond a Boundary is not just a memoir of his Caribbean boyhood, a celebration of cricket, and an indictment of colonialism; it also served to inspire the thriving academic field that is cultural studies. As a philosopher, while he was in a self-imposed exile in Nevada in the late 1940s, James grappled adroitly with Hegel and his reverberations in the work of Marx and Lenin. As a literary critic, his excavation of Melville continues to repay attention. Assuredly, James was one of the 20th century’s foremost radical intellectuals.

C.L.R. James was born in 1901, as Queen Victoria’s life was coming to an end, and died in 1989, a few months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. At the time of his birth, his homeland—the archipelago of Trinidad and Tobago—was still an uneasy component of the British Empire. James’s melanin content represented a legacy of the African slave trade: Apparently, he was partly of French ancestry, which may shed light on why he studied the language of Robespierre and Toussaint, even though English was his native tongue. As a young athlete, James set the high-jump record in Trinidad and Tobago, and would hold it for years after he left the islands—a harbinger of the heights to which he would soar.

James was also a voracious reader from an early age, and it proved to be a lifelong habit: The lengthy list of his frequently consulted journals included The Nation, which he pored over in the public library.

By 1932, at the age of 31, James had arrived in Britain. He had left the Caribbean partly to escape an unfulfilling marriage and partly to seek his fortune in a land that offered more opportunities for the budding writer that he had become. In Britain, he was deeply influenced by the atmosphere of intellectual and political ferment generated by a bevy of exiles there, including Robeson and Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya. It was in Britain that James encountered Trotsky’s newly published History of the Russian Revolution, which inspired his own work on Haiti. By 1933 and ‘34, he was spending months at a time in France working on his magnum opus. 

Read entire article at The Nation