C. L. R. James: Renaissance Revolutionary

Here are excerpts from Alan Warhaftig’s “C. L. R. James: Renaissance Revolutionary” (Los Angeles Review of Books). Warhaftig reminds us that most of James’s books have been reissued, along with many volumes about him and his work, and that he had “a place of honor in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe (2020) [. . ].” He also underlines the excellence of Michael Dibb’s 1976 documentary on James, Beyond a Boundary, which can currently be found on YouTube and Vimeo. See the Los Angeles Review of Books for the full review. [Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.]

CYRIL LIONEL ROBERT JAMES was born in Tunapuna, Trinidad, near Port of Spain, on January 4, 1901, the eldest of three children. His father was a schoolmaster, his mother a great reader. Both belonged to the island’s small Black middle class. In Beyond a Boundary, his extraordinary 1963 memoir, James explained:

This meant that my grandfather had raised himself above the mass of poverty, dirt, ignorance and vice which in those far-off days surrounded the islands of black lower middle-class respectability like a sea ever threatening to engulf them. […] My grandfather went to church every Sunday morning at eleven o’clock wearing in the broiling sun a frock-coat, striped trousers and top hat, with his walking-stick in hand, surrounded by his family, the underwear of the women crackling with starch. Respectability was not an ideal, it was an armour. He fell grievously ill, the family fortunes declined and the children grew up in unending struggle not to sink below the level of the Sunday-morning top-hat and frock-coat.

James was raised as a Victorian, a unique product of the British Empire. As a child he was drawn to cricket and English literature, passions that remained with him throughout his life. In Beyond a Boundary, he precisely situated his childhood:

Tunapuna at the beginning of this century was a small town of about 3,000 inhabitants […] Like all towns and villages on the island, it possessed a recreation ground. Recreation meant cricket, for in those days, except for infrequent athletic sports meetings, cricket was the only game. Our house was superbly situated, exactly behind the wicket. A huge tree on one side and another house on the other limited the view of the ground, but an umpire could have stood at the bedroom window. By standing on a chair a small boy of six could watch practice every afternoon and matches on Saturdays […] From the chair also he could mount on to the window-sill and so stretch a groping hand for the books on the top of the wardrobe. Thus early the pattern of my life was set.

[. . .] James’s faults apparently weren’t serious enough to prevent his being hired to teach at his alma mater. One of his students was Eric Williams, who would go on to earn a doctorate in history at Oxford, lead Trinidad to independence, and serve as its prime minister until his death in 1981. [. . .]

During a vacation, James wrote his only novel, Minty Alley (1936), a coming-of-age story about Haynes, a bookish young Black man whose life is unsettled when his mother dies and he cannot afford to remain in the family home. He rents a room in a house in Minty Alley, whose other residents are of a lower social class. Haynes is fascinated by their passionate approach to daily life, so different from his own middle-class upbringing, and is drawn into their lives in various ways. A classic of West Indian literature and the first Black West Indian–authored novel to be published in Great Britain, Minty Alley offers an impressive sociological portrait of Trinidad in the 1920s. [. . .]

Minty Alley appeared in 1936, the same year that James’s only play, Toussaint Louverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History, was performed in London’s West End by the Stage Society, with Paul Robeson in the lead role. In 1937, Secker & Warburg published James’s World Revolution, 1917–1936: The Rise and Fall of the Communist International, a systematic critique of Stalinism that was regarded, for a time, as a key theoretical work for Trotskyites. In 1938, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution followed, a landmark history of the Haitian Revolution. In 1939, James’s translation of Boris Souvarine’s French exposé, Stalin: A Critical Survey of Bolshevism, caused a stir when it was published on the eve of the Moscow trials.

As a self-described “literate and loquacious colonial,” James was in high demand as a public speaker on both general politics and colonial issues.  [. . .]

C. L. R. James was a brilliant, articulate, charming man, one of the finest public intellectuals of the 20th century. He was not one to lounge on what he called the “bathing beaches of contemporary philosophy.” While he profoundly comprehended the personal terms in which social problems manifest, he was a materialist and refused to indulge a tragic worldview. He was also intellectually pragmatic. As he wrote in his preface to Beyond a Boundary: “If the ideas originated in the West Indies it was only in England and in English life and history that I was able to track them down and test them. To establish his own identity, Caliban, after three centuries, must himself pioneer into regions Caesar never knew.” [. . .]

For full review, see https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/c-l-r-james-renaissance-revolutionary

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