C. L. R. James's Caribbean

C. L. R. James's Caribbean

by Paget Henry

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For more than half a century, C. L. R. James (1901–1989)—"the Black Plato," as coined by the London Times—has been an internationally renowned revolutionary thinker, writer, and activist. Born in Trinidad, his lifelong work was devoted to understanding and transforming race and class exploitation in his native West Indies, as well as in


For more than half a century, C. L. R. James (1901–1989)—"the Black Plato," as coined by the London Times—has been an internationally renowned revolutionary thinker, writer, and activist. Born in Trinidad, his lifelong work was devoted to understanding and transforming race and class exploitation in his native West Indies, as well as in Britain and the United States. In C. L. R. James's Caribbean, noted scholars examine the roots of both James's life and oeuvre in connection with the economic, social, and political environment of the West Indies.

Drawing upon James's observations of his own life as revealed to interviewers and close friends, this volume provides an examination of James's childhood and early years as colonial literatteur and his massive contribution to West Indian political-cultural understanding. Moving beyond previous biographical interpretations, the contributors here take up the problem of reading James's texts in light of poststructuralist criticism, the implications of his texts for Marxist discourse, and for problems of Caribbean development.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"These penetrating studies throw much-needed light both on C. L. R. James and the Caribbean worlds about which he cared so much. . . . Required reading for all who would like to understand James's varied work."--David Barry Gaspar, author of Bondmen and Rebels

"This volume is a provocative and powerful introduction to the political and literary writings of C. L. R. James, one of the twentieth century's greatest intellectuals of the left. This creative collection explores new dimensions of James's thought and is essential reading for those interested in the black intellectual tradition of the Caribbean in literature, politics, and history."—Manning Marable, University of Colorado at Boulder

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C. L. R. James's Caribbean

By Paget Henry, Paul Buhle

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1992 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-8238-6


C. L. R. James: A Portrait Stuart Hall

The life and work of C. L. R. James can be divided into four parts: the early years in Trinidad, the first years in England, the American sojourn, and, finally, James's return to the Caribbean. During all four periods he was intensively active, both politically and creatively.

I will emphasize the political context in which James worked because I think that he has not been accorded his proper due. James was an extremely important political and intellectual figure who is only just beginning to be widely recognized for his achievements. His work has never been critically and theoretically engaged as it should be. Consequently, much writing on James is necessarily explanatory, descriptive, and celebratory. However, major intellectual and political figures are not honored by simply celebration. Honor is accorded by taking his or her ideas seriously and debating them, extending them, quarreling with them, and making them live again. Thus I will raise some interesting but not quite settled questions about James's intellectual and political work. It is not because I think less of him, but because I think so much of him that I think he should be part of a much wider intellectual and political discourse. Paul Buhle's book C. L. R. James: The Artist as Revolutionary raises some of those themes, but there is much more to be done.

James was born in Trinidad in 1901; his father was a schoolmaster whose background was of the skilled lower middle class in a colonial British Caribbean society. His mother, an educated woman, had a profound influence upon James and introduced him to books. A great reader, she had a wide variety of books in the home, which was uncommon even among so-called educated people in the Caribbean. It is easy to find people in the Caribbean who are well off but have no tradition of reading. James was thus fortunate in having had early access to books. Some, and there are surprising ones among them, he still read in later years. He confessed to me that he read Vanity Fair every year.

Another fortunate event in James's life was that he attended Queens Royal College, one of the large secondary schools for boys that were common in the Caribbean at the time. James received a scholarship, and it provided him with a local variant of an English education. Queens Royal College was not quite an English public school, but it provided an academic education. Students took English examinations, played cricket, and read an English curriculum. James learned the classics there and to read and speak French.

When James left Queens Royal College he thought of himself as a writer. He was hired to teach at the school, and among his students was Eric Williams, later to be one of the first leaders of independent Trinidad. Williams was the founder of the Peoples National Movement (PNM), one of the major parties of Caribbean politics in the sixties. Before that, he wrote a major work on the Caribbean slave trade, Capitalism and Slavery (1944), a work responsible for a profound historical reevaluation of the nature of the antislavery movement. The thesis of Capitalism and Slavery, Williams's Ph.D. dissertation at Oxford, came from the germ of an idea that James had written on the back of an envelope. Much later in his life when Williams repudiated James, James reminded Williams that he had known him since Williams was a little boy.

By any measure, James was a bold, ambitious, and wide-ranging young man in the colonial society of his native Trinidad. After being educated, he became involved gradually in the artistic and intellectual movements that were developing on the island. He joined with other young writers and began to write short stories. After a collection of the best short stories was sent to him that contained one of his, James began to take himself even more seriously as a writer and soon produced his first novel, Minty Alley (1936). The book, about popular life in Trinidad and partly autobiographical, focuses on a young black middle-class esthete in Port of Spain who comes to understand what Trinidadian life is like by listening to ordinary people instead of by writing books.

At the same time, James became involved in the early stages of the Trinidadian labor movement and the movement for national independence. One of the leading figures of the era was Arthur Cipriani, a Corsican. Cipriani's leadership reflected a peculiar feature of Caribbean society, which contains influences from almost everywhere else in the world. That is what is unique about the Caribbean, half of it belongs to everyone else. Thus the fact that a Corsican led a Trinidadian labor movement should not be surprising. Cipriani, who fought in World War I, protested the situation of black soldiers who returned from the war, and he became involved in organizing the Trinidad Working Men's Association. He developed Trinidad's first organized program for workmen's compensation and the limitation of working hours. James worked for this pioneer in the birth of the Trinidadian labor movement. He wrote for the newspaper Cipriani founded and eventually produced his biography. The book, The Life of Captain Cipriani, was produced in 1932, just before James left the Caribbean for England, where a portion of it was republished as The Case for West Indian Self-Government. Thus James laid claim to the labor movement as a young intellectual in Port of Spain and to the whole development of West Indian nationalism in the interwar period.

Three things are noteworthy about the first phase of James's life. First, James's intellectual formation was through a colonial education. He was educated in a sort of mimickry of an English public school, but the school influenced James in such things as his understanding of cricket. Second, he became linked to the birth of the organized labor movement in the Caribbean. Third, he was part of a small but important and quite ambitious group of young black intellectuals in Port of Spain. It was quite remarkable to consider oneself a writer in Trinidad, a tiny island that had no publishing facilities and no large reading audience. James in particular was very ambitious, and his experiences would be translated into a new political project in the next period of his life.

This second period began with James's departure for Great Britain. He arrived in 1932, still very much committed to making his fortune as a writer. All West Indian writers of James's generation and the next would go to England to work. George Lamming, Sam Selvon, and Wilson Harris all moved to the center of the metropolis; only later in the sixties was the Caribbean public large and organized enough for writers to remain there.

In England, James met another friend, Learie Constantine, the first outstanding black cricketer who made a significant impact on West Indian cricket. Constantine came to England with the West Indian touring team and was the first black cricketer to be employed in the English league cricket. Today, a Puerto Rican ball player comes to the United States and is hired by one of the major league clubs. Then, to be hired by the Lancashire Cricket Club was an equally important thing. Constantine was not only a great cricketer, but also an important figure in the early formation of a black consciousness movement in Britain.

Even more important for the second phase of James's development was the fact that it was Constantine who introduced him to Neville Cardus, the cricket correspondent for the Manchester Guardian. Cardus liked James and discovered that he had a phenomenal memory and knew the scores every touring team had made since about 1901. He got James a job as his substitute on the Guardian-, when Cardus didn't want to go to matches, James went in his place. Through this connection with Constantine, and his early interest in cricket, James's writing aspirations led him in a new direction—sports writing.

During this period, James also began to develop the project of writing something else about the Caribbean, a history of the slave revolution in Haiti. As he worked on the project, James became involved with British Trotskyism. He read Marx first in the light of the Trotskyist movement. His first Marxist connections were with the political movement of the Trotskyist and neo-Trotskyist groups in England, and through them he encountered the popular literature of Leninist and Marxist texts, which were circulated for people's self-education. James first became involved with a Marxist party called the Independent Labour Party (ILP). The British Labour Party, the major social democratic party, had a different political character. The ILP was an independent leftist socialist party that had long debated the fledgling British Communist Party over whether or not the ILP would join with the Comintern. Eventually the Independent Labour Party decided not to join. Consequently, James's relationship to Marxism was from the first critical of Stalinism and the Comintern. He was never a Stalinist, but encountered Marxism in its non-Stalinist form. As a Trotskyist, he was an independent socialist.

What is James's critique of the forms of Stalinist organizations? Why did he think it important to have Marxist formations outside of the Comintern? This is the beginning of a long critique that belongs to James's "Trotskyism." I put the term in quotation marks because there are many forms of Trotskyism, and James's is just one. But his Trotskyism arose from this moment. It was a critique of the authoritarian forms of Stalinist rule and of the absence of democracy, a critique of a revolution that is not democratic in its form, which does not energize the popular consciousness, and in which the party has been substituted for the people. James was critical of the whole notion of a vanguard party that would accomplish the revolution for the people or tell or educate them about what they should think.

This early critique first took James to the ILP and through that to the smaller Trotskyist groups in British politics. In 1938 he published World Revolution, a critique of the history of the Comintern. In it, James examined the ways in which the popular energies of leftist movements throughout the world had been subordinated to the interest of the Soviet Union through the Comintern, and how the Comintern prevented such movements from growing. James also translated from the French a critical biography of Stalin by the important Trotskyist historian Boris Souvarine.

To the interest in cricket and Trotskyism of James's second period must also be added Pan-Africanism, because James was also becoming involved in the revival of the movement in England. Pan-Africanism had a long history before this attempt at revival, a history particularly evident in the work of W. E. B. Du Bois and the Pan-African Congress, which from the early twentieth century was part of American history. Further, the revival was related to the Pan-Africanist elements in Garveyism and the formation of Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association. Consequently, in the 1920s the Pan-African movement shifted some of its activity to London, where James came into contact with it. One of his most intriguing contacts was through George Padmore, an old school friend from Trinidad. Before James came to England, Padmore, whose real name was Malcolm Nurse, left for the United States and joined the Communist Party. An intellectual, he was sent to the Soviet Union, given a position in the Comintern in charge of African and Pan-African affairs, and was later sent back to the West. There he was to organize the black and African elements in the world revolution on behalf of the Comintern. James heard of George Padmore, met him, and discovered that "Padmore" was actually his old friend Malcolm Nurse, snuggled away in a new historical role. In his casual way, James greeted Nurse in the following manner: Hey Malcolm, you are the great George Padmore. I heard that you are the great Comintern man and I am not a Comintern man. We are supposed to be antagonists. I did not know it was you. How are you?

Both this story and the case of James's friendship with Paul Robeson illustrate a striking feature of James's character. In this period, he had a classically Trotskyist way of differentiating among those people with whom he did not agree, a great political skill that Trotskyism had honed. Trotskyists differentiated among themselves; there was never just one Trotskyist group, there were at least four or five. James was good at making such distinctions, but he was also astonishingly good at collaborating with people with whom he did not agree. Thus, Robeson's ties to the American Communist Party did not prevent James from writing a play for Robeson, or from thinking well of him.

Malcolm Nurse, as an agent of the Comintern, had a view on the relationship of the black struggle to both the class struggle and the revolution, and although James did not agree with him, the men still spoke to each other. James and Padmore were influential in reviving the Pan-African movement in London. The movement began to grow through the League of Colored People and through the work of Garvey's first wife, Amy Ashwood Garvey, who was active in it. James and Padmore played important roles in the lives of young black African leaders who were studying in London during the 1930s. James met Kwame Nkrumah and Jomo Kenyatta, both of whom were heavily influenced by Pan-Africanism.

The movement was also punctuated by an important development in international affairs. This was the period of the Abyssinian war, in which Italy invaded Abyssinia (Ethiopia). The invasion spawned the League for the Protection of Ethiopia and Toussaint L'Ouverture; the play that James wrote and Robeson performed was staged under the auspices of the league at a small theater in London.

The remarkable breadth of James's sympathies, as displayed in his friendships with Robeson and Padmore, was evident in another friendship related to the Abyssinian crisis and the larger Pan-African struggle. This was James's collaboration with Ras Makonnen, an important Guyanese who was involved in the league. Makonnen was suspicious of the whole Marxist, Trotskyist historical materialist baggage, but James held him in high regard and worked with him as an ally. The combination of a hard edge in James's political positions and the remarkable breadth of his human sympathies is arresting and unusual. People who hold clear political positions are frequently thought to be sectarian. James was not a classic revolutionary sectarian in that sense, however. He was able to collaborate with a wide range of people.

Completing this second phase of James's life was the publication of The Black Jacobins in 1938. The book is a major work of historical scholarship, with a grand majestical sweep. It was the first and most elaborate history of the major slave revolution in the Caribbean, that in Haiti. The work is well theorized and wonderfully narrated, with a sense of drama clearly linked to the play James had completed earlier. It can be compared to Trotsky's history of the Russian Revolution. Along with a wonderfully dramatic sense of event, James demonstrates a Marxist understanding of the historical context and sweep of events. He went to France and was the first person to examine the historical records of the Haitian Revolution in the French archives. Consequently, his work contains a history of the Central African people from which slaves first came, as well as a history of the Atlantic slave trade. During this research James had an idea that he wrote on the back of an envelope, an idea upon which Eric Williams's dissertation was based. It was against this historical backdrop that the narrative of the eruption of the Haitian Revolution was allowed to unfold.

The Black Jacobins was also informed by James's understanding of the contemporary political scene. Toussaint L'Ouverture, the great leader of the Haitian Revolution, was motivated by the domination that defined the social position of slaves and also by the events of the French Revolution. Because of the latter influence, the black revolutionaries assumed the garb, indeed the uniforms, of the French Revolution and so became Jacobins. L'Ouverture himself was similar to Napoleon. The same thing happened to him that happened to Napoleon: he became seduced into not leading a democratic movement and instead became the charismatic leader of an autocratic one. "Bonapartism" is a Trotskyist concept for what happened to Stalin. L'Ouverture fell from a Bonapartist error and was replaced by Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who was unafraid to be a true political party apparachnik, that is, like Stalin. James reread the Haitian Revolution as a mass uprising in which the leader became trapped in bureaucracy and was slowly transformed into a self-effacing dictator who capitulated, contained, and defused the popular revolution. The Black Jacobins is a wonderful book and a fitting conclusion to the second phase of James's life.


Excerpted from C. L. R. James's Caribbean by Paget Henry, Paul Buhle. Copyright © 1992 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Paget Henry, a native of Antigua, is Associate Professor of Sociology and Afro-American Studies at Brown University. His books include Peripheral Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Antigua.

Paul Buhle is the author of C. L. R. James: His Life and Work.

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