Key thinker: C.L.R. James (1901–1989)
C.L.R. James (1901–1989)
Cyril Lionel Robert James, better known as C.L.R. James, was born in Tunapuna, Trinidad, then still a British Crown colony, at the turn of the 20th century. In 1910, James won a scholarship to attended Queen’s Royal College (QRC), the only non-Catholic secondary school in Trinidad, where he distinguished himself as an athlete and first became interested in writing fiction (https://www.bl.uk/people/c-l-r-james). He developed a lifelong love for cricket, which would culminate in his 1963 book, Beyond A Boundary. After graduating, James went on to teach English and History at QRC; among his students at the school was the future Prime Minister of independent Trinidad and Tobago and author of the ground-breaking Capitalism and Slavery (1944), Eric Williams, whom he would again tutor at Oxford years later.
In the early 1930s, James became involved with the ‘Beacon Group’, a group of writers, artists, and intellectuals who sought to create a Trinidadian national literature (https://www.bl.uk/people/c-l-r-james). He also began writing his first non-fiction pamphlet, The Case for West Indian Self-Government (1933), a short biography of Andrew Cipriani, a political leader and advocate for West Indian self-government. The pamphlet was the first manifesto for West Indian independence from Britain, and laid the foundations for James’ anti-colonial thinking (https://www.nytimes.com/1989/06/02/obituaries/c-l-r-james-historian-critic-and-pan-africanist-is-dead-at-88.html). But his politics at the time were also marked by a belief in liberal humanism and a deep admiration for the history, literature, art, and music of European civilization (https://www.marxists.org/archive/james-clr/biograph.htm).
In 1932, James left Trinidad for Britain. He initially settled in the small cotton and textile town of Nelson, Lancashire, where he finished writing his first novel, Minty Alley (1936). That same year James began working as a cricket correspondent for the Manchester Guardian. In Lancashire, James was first exposed to the industrial militancy of working people in England (https://www.marxists.org/archive/james-clr/biograph.htm). He began to seriously study the writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky, which inspired his turn from liberal humanism to revolutionary socialism. After moving to London in 1933, James became increasingly active in Trotskyist and Pan-Africanist (see Chapter 30, Key Concept: Pan-Africanism) circles where he continued to advocate for West Indian independence (https://mronline.org/2017/10/09/the-marxism-of-c-l-r-james/). While in Britain, he published World Revolution (1937), his pioneering study of the conflict between Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin in the interwar years (https://www.marxists.org/archive/james-clr/biograph.htm).
James hoped to persuade Black radicals to join the organized labour movement by stressing the centrality of class, but he also convinced Marxists to take seriously the issue of racism, which prevented the emergence of a unified international class struggle (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2022/mar/13/clr-james-a-life-beyond-the-boundaries-review-making-of-a-marxist-icon). But the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 forced James to reckon with the silence of the British labour movement on anti-colonial struggles in Africa (see 18,1. Introduction). To work more intensely on supporting independence movements, James joined the International African Service Bureau, where he collaborated closely with fellow Trinidadian radical George Padmore (https://www.marxists.org/archive/james-clr/biograph.htm).
In 1938, James helped to found the Fourth International, a worldwide organization of revolutionary socialists (https://mronline.org/2017/10/09/the-marxism-of-c-l-r-james/) (see Chapter 13 on Karl Marx). He was elected to its International Executive Committee, which allowed him to continue his political work outside of England. Later that year, James left England for the United States where he would remain for the following 15 years (https://www.nytimes.com/1989/06/02/obituaries/c-l-r-james-historian-critic-and-pan-africanist-is-dead-at-88.html). Alongside Raya Dunayevskaya and Grace Lee Boogs, James formed the Johnson-Forest Tendency, a distinctive political current within the American Trotskyist movement (https://www.marxists.org/archive/james-clr/biograph.htm). James and his associates believed that the Black freedom struggle in the United States was not secondary to the class struggle but had its own important dynamic (https://mronline.org/2017/10/09/the-marxism-of-c-l-r-james/). They also questioned why communism, which had promised to usher in an age of freedom, had produced its own unfreedoms in the form of state repression.
While James would remain part of the Trotskyist movement until 1951 (https://mronline.org/2017/10/09/the-marxism-of-c-l-r-james/), he became increasingly convinced that Black people needed to build their own revolutionary organization outside of the control of the International or its affiliated Communist Parties. In 1939, he travelled to Mexico to discuss the ‘Negro Question’—the question of Black people’s self-determination within the international labour movement—with Trotsky (https://www.marxists.org/archive/james-clr/biograph.htm). James is part of a long tradition of Black communists who distanced themselves from the Party (Robinson, 1983). But this did not mean that James rejected Marxism; instead, he hoped to broaden its theoretical framework to include Black and anti-imperialist struggles that James believed were central to the international class struggle (https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v44/n07/kevin-okoth/resistance-from-elsewhere).
In 1952, at the height of anti-communist repression by the US State, James was interned on Ellis Island, where he wrote a book on the novelist Herman Melville, and was later deported (https://www.nytimes.com/1989/06/02/obituaries/c-l-r-james-historian-critic-and-pan-africanist-is-dead-at-88.html). He would spend the following years in Britain and Trinidad, with a brief sojourn in newly independent Ghana where he met the country’s president, Kwame Nkrumah. He spent his last years living in Brixton, south London, where he lived a quiet life in a flat filled with music, art, and books (https://www.marxists.org/archive/james-clr/biograph.htm). C.L.R. James died in London on 31 May 1989, just as the Communist project was falling apart. He was 88 years old.
In 1934, James wrote a play on the Haiti’s revolutionary leader, Toussaint L’Ouverture. The first performance of the play in London’s West End starred the actor and civil rights activist Paul Robeson; it was the first time a Black actor had performed a play by a Black playwright on a British stage (https://www.bl.uk/people/c-l-r-james). The play explores the fraught relationship between Toussaint and his general Jean-Jacques Dessalines. For James, Toussaint is a Francophile who wants freedom for the enslaved but laments their lack of appreciation for French culture (see Box 15.3: Toussaint the Francophile). Dessalines, on the other hand, is a man of the people whose hatred for the French mirrors that of the enslaved masses. Yet James’ dramaturgy suggests that Toussaint is the true leader of the revolution, even though Dessalines is closer to the people (see 18.3.2. The Haitian Revolution versus European Civilisation).
The conflict between Toussaint and Dessalines in the play reflects a tension in James’ thought between his belief in the value of European civilization, and his faith in the revolutionary power of Black struggles for freedom (see 18.4. Black Freedom/European Civilisation). This tension is also at the heart of The Black Jacobins (1938), James’ most famous book. Like the play, the book casts the self-emancipation of the Haitian people as a revolutionary project of the radical intelligentsia (see 18.3.2. The Haitian Revolution versus European Civilisation). James’ understanding of freedom was shaped by the French Revolution and the spirit of Enlightenment radicalism. For James, the search for freedom is a self-directed activity by an individual person who pushes for collective self-determination (see 18.4.1. Trinidad and the Racial Sources of Self-Determination). Plantation society, he argued, had instilled a strong desire for freedom and self-determination in Black West Indians. But while the drive to freedom came from the enslaved, the revolution would be guided by European civilization. The task of the Black intelligentsia was thus to embrace the good aspects of modernity whilst rejecting slavery and colonialism.
James’ main contribution to Marxism was his dialectic of freedom (see 18.2.1. The Dialectic of Freedom). James, Dunayevskaya, and Boggs, who had set themselves the task of explaining why the Soviet Union had become repressive, argued that it wasn’t a socialist but a state capitalist society. Like bourgeois societies, the Soviets’ economic model relied on alienated labour (see 13.1. Introduction in Chapter 13 on Marx and Alienation); because labour had not become a self-directed activity that expanded freedom, work in the Soviet Union was as exploitative, if not more, than in capitalist societies. In the Soviet Union, communism had not replaced capitalism as many Marxists suggested. Therefore, it was the task of Marxists to rethink the nature of class struggle and the dialectic of freedom. James concluded that the two, not three, classes formed the dialectic: the bourgeoisie, the masses, and the petty bourgeoisie (see 18.2.2. The Radical Intelligentsia and the Masses). Because the radical intelligentsia emerges from the petty bourgeoisie, who can never be the generators of historical movements but can help guide the struggle at a crucial moment. But the intelligentsia could, of course, also cause new unfreedoms; this, James argued, is what had happened with the Bolsheviks.
It is important to note that most of the historical figures James engaged with to theorize his dialectic of freedom were men (see 18.4.4. Black Women and the Dialectic of Freedom). While James recognized that Black women had played a key role in many revolutionary movements, he never ascribes to them the role of the Black intelligentsia; they are participants in, not leaders of, the revolution. There is also little recognition in James’ writing of the crucial work of community-building and collective organising that Black women had done (see Carby, 1998); this is especially surprising considering James’ close ties to Amy Ashwood Garvey (see Key thinker: Amy Ashwood Garvey) or his wife Selma James’ feminist work with the Wages for Housework campaign. The omission of Black women from the dialectic of freedom severely limits its theoretical usefulness for the analysis of the class struggle. Nonetheless, James’ political thought offers a fertile basis from which to theorize a Marxism suited to the challenge of building an international worker’s movement.
Scott, David. Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004.
Henry, Paget, and Paul Buhle, eds. C. L. R. James’s Caribbean. Duke University Press, 1992.
Dadzie, Stella. A Kick in the Belly: Women, Slavery and Resistance. London/Brooklyn: Verso, 2021.
Robinson, Cedric J. Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. London: Penguin Classics, 2021.
Hazareesingh, Sudhir. 2020. Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Carby, Hazel (1998) Race Men (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).
Buck-Morss, Susan, Hegel, Haiti and Universal History, Pittsburgh, Pa: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009.
John L. Williams, C.L.R. James: A Life Beyond the Boundaries, London: Constable, 2022.