C.L.R. James speaks in London’s Trafalgar Square
in support of the Ethiopian anti-colonial struggle
THE SMALLISH crowd of C.L.R. James’ admirers at the time of his 1989 death was notable for its scattered global character, its sports fans, its Pan African devotees and also its socialists with Trotskyist leanings.
From India to the Anglophone Caribbean, from the UK to Canada, James continued to hold readers rapt with Beyond a Boundary (1963), a history of cricket that was also a quasi-memoir of youth in Trinidad during the first decades of the century. Early and late, he had worked and written for anti-colonial movements.
The socialist part of his life remained, at his passing, the least understood. This volume of essays and documents, reprinted by Haymarket from a rather obscure publication in 1994, restores to readers a valuable and interesting text that is both relevant today and a part of socialist history that is barely understood.
Its editors, Scott McLemee and Paul Le Blanc, are past masters of left history relevant to the subject and volume: Le Blanc with an updated essay on James in Left Americana and McLemee with a separate volume titled C.L.R. James On the Negro Question.
Let us turn quickly, in this brief review, to the matter at hand: James’ own view of Revolutionary Marxism.
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THE INTRODUCTION and Afterword both highlight an essential point: James’ history of the Haitian revolt, Black Jacobins (1938), very much inspired by Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, opened up the unknown saga of slave uprisings, but also of mass production in what amounted almost to modern agri-factory conditions.
So few whites managed so many slaves that much of the skilled labor–the thinking on the job–was inevitably carried out by slaves themselves, a vital point. They had already made history (in the most valuable economic site of the time) and did again in their revolt, without being guided by any nonwhite movement or party.
The same C.L.R. James wrote, around the same time, A History of the Negro Revolt, a powerful if smallish book, and World Revolution, a thick volume described in the UK, where it was published, as a “Bible of Trotskyism.”
James had by that time become a most unique Trotskyist, ready to remove himself from Britain to the U.S. in 1939, and he remained a singular Marxist and world figure for the next 60 years, until his passing.
The most unique and hitherto little-seen essays in this book come from the 1940s Trotskyist press. James was not the only luminous intellectual of these circles, nor did he become a leader of more than a small faction (with his partners, Raya Dunayevskaya and Grace Lee) within the diverse and divided Trotskyist field.
James had in his writing, nevertheless, a remarkable sweep, resting upon a view of civilization at large, a striking originality of thought and, of course, a special feeling for the potential of African Americans within the left and society at large.
I am not so sure that he was well served by being a vigorous debater (I remember anarcho-ecologist Murray Bookchin, another former Trotskyist, saying to me in 1970: “That James…he could HOLD A POSITION”), because so much energy went into disputations. But a fresh reading of these mostly wartime texts lends a fine view of global society seeking to wrench free of war and capitalism.
It also shows us what socialist prose can be: James is marvelously fluent, on almost any subject, and he offers readers deep insights without talking down to them. Any young writer today would benefit from studying how James uses his prose, how he dedicates his sweeping intellect to the particular tasks of socialist transformation, and how he lets us understand his own depth without becoming pedantic in the slightest.
Scott McLemee, in the Afterword, closes in part by acutely suggesting that James had a proto-New Left view, an observation that we might adjust to 2018.
James was very firm in his understanding that the institutions of liberalism were passing into crisis, and that the “state capitalist” (his phrase for Stalinist) societies had no answer for this crisis. He did not (quite) live to see the Eastern Bloc fall, but he would have understood that only a mighty movement from below, marked by direct mass action as well as strategic planning, could finish off a class system.
Following Lenin, James insisted that the socialist society creates itself in no small part by breaking up the state–as he thought, late in his life, that Polish Solidarity was doing; a renewal of the promise to him, of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, and of course, the Russian Revolution itself.
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DOUBTLESS THE most familiar text reprinted here is “The Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Problem,” a resolution prepared for the 1948 convention of the Socialist Workers Party.
It is, for me, above all an appeal to socialists themselves to watch the masses in motion, in politics and daily life, and to grasp what they are doing as radical potential–something socialists lost in theoretical speculation have often been prone to miss when it comes to music, sports and other seemingly non-political actions. James also, of course, anticipated Black Power.
Least familiar to the general reader is certainly “Trotsky’s Place in History.” No summary will do justice to the spirit of this essay, and I believe that many readers of SW will come away from it with conclusions richer than my own.
But consider that James, himself a historian of great significance, is seeking here to put Leon Trotsky’s work in the light of the great 19th century historians Gibbon and Michelet, also in the light of Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire, concluding that The History of the Russian Revolution “will remain a bridge between the long line which leads from the Old Testament and Homer, the Greek tragedy, Dante and Cervantes.”
All this James attributed to the strengthening of ordinary humans’ growing confidence in themselves, their right and their capacity to reorganize the world.
James’ actual criticisms of Trotsky, here and elsewhere within this volume, are appropriately modest and helpful, but come down to the kindly observation that if Lenin loved the rough play of political warfare, Trotsky would rather spend his time in his study, as the remarkable scholar that he was.
He could be wrong on particulars, but–to borrow a phrase he directed at other Trotskyists–if Trotsky was mistaken, on the Stalinized Russian state in particular, he was never confused.
There is so much more here in the pages of this volume that readers will readily find their own favorite essays, likely their own favorite sentences and paragraphs–because James’ prose so often sparkles with style and also with complications.
A small complaint: I do not think his criticism of Herbert Aptheker, the Communist historian of African American life, is entirely fair. By dint of research on slave revolts, Aptheker went far in a field with little existing scholarship. Later generations of left-wing scholars, notably Robin D.G. Kelley, have lauded Aptheker’s strengths, acknowledging his weaknesses.
This seems no matter of great significance to the rest of Revolutionary Marxism. Readers of C.L.R. James will relish what they find here and look elsewhere for the other works of James, early and late.
The voices of the Haitian slaves rising up have yet to be heard fully, but future revolutionary generations of every culture will yet hear them–of that we may be sure. They will thank James for his contribution on this and other subjects, and we thank Scott McLemee and Paul Le Blanc for their efforts in making this unique anthology available.