August 23, 2020

By Anna Grimshaw

C.L.R. James died in May 1989. His death coincided with the explosion of popular forces across China and eastern Europe which shook some of the most oppressive political regimes in human history. These momentous events, calling into question the structure of the modern world order, throw into sharp relief the life and work of one of this century’s most outstanding figures. For James was pre-eminently a man of the twentieth century. His legacy reflects the scope and diversity of his life’s work, the unique conditions of particular times and places; and yet at its core lies a vision of humanity which is universal and integrated, progressive and profound.

James’s distinctive contribution to the understanding of civilization emerged from a world filled with war, division, fear, suppression and unprecedented brutality. He himself had never underestimated the depth of the crisis which faced modern humanity. In James’s view, it was fundamental. It was part and parcel of the process of civilization itself, as the need for the free and full development of the human personality within new, expanded conceptions of social life came up against enhanced powers of rule from above, embodied in centralized, bureaucratic structures which confined and fragmented human capacity at every level. This theme, what James later called the struggle between socialism and barbarism, was the foundation of his life’s work. In the early Caribbean phase, it was implicit in his depiction of character and society through fiction and cricket writing; later it became politically focused in his active engagement with the tradition of revolutionary Marxism; until eventually, as a result of his experience of the New World, it became the expansive and unifying theme by which James approached the complexity of the modern world.

C.L.R. James spent his last years in Brixton, south London. He lived simply and quietly in a small room filled with books, music and art. His television set was usually switched on and it stood in the centre of the floor. James recreated a whole world within that cramped space. It was here, too, that he received visitors, those people who sought him out for his practical political advice, for the developed historical perspective and range of his analysis; but, above all, for the sheer vitality and humanity of his vision. From my desk in the corner of that Brixton room I would watch his eyes grow bright and his face become sharp and eager as he responded to questions, moving always with imagination and ease, from the concrete details of particular situations into broader, historical and philosophical issues. Frequently he surprised visitors by asking them detailed questions about themselves, their backgrounds, experiences, education, work, absorbing the information, as he had done throughout his life, as a fundamental part of his outlook on the world. At other times, James retreated; and I watched him sitting in his old armchair, his once powerful frame almost buried beneath a mountain of rugs, completely absorbed in his reading, pausing occasionally only to scribble or exclaim in the margins of the book.

Gradually I became familiar with the different elements of James’s method which underlay his approach to the world and left a distinctive mark on all his writing. First of all, James had a remarkable visual sense. He watched everything with a very keen eye; storing images in his memory for over half a century, of distinctive personalities and particular events, which he wove into his prose with the skill and sensitivity of a novelist. Although his passion for intellectual rigour gave a remarkable consistency to the themes of his life’s work, his analyses were never confined. He was always seeking to move beyond conventional limitations in his attempt to capture the interconnectedness of things and the integration of human experience.

I. TRINIDAD: 1901-1932

James was the first to acknowledge that the essential features of his perspective had been moulded in the context of his Caribbean childhood and youth. He was born in Trinidad on 4 January 1901; his parents were part of a distinctive generation of blacks – the generation which followed slave emancipation and whose contribution shaped profoundly the future of those small island societies. James’s father was a schoolteacher; his mother was, as he described her in Beyond A Boundary, “. . . a reader, one of the most tireless I have ever met.” The opening page of James’s classic book revealed the major influences at work: “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 top of the wardrobe. Thus early the pattern of my life was set.”

Not only did James, through watching, playing and studying cricket, develop at a precociously early age the method by which he later examined all other social phenomena; but also, as a boy, he had responded instinctively to something located much deeper in human experience. Cricket was whole. It was expressive in a fundamental way of the elements which constituted human existence – combining as it did spectacle, history, politics; sequence/tableau, movement/stasis, individual/society.

The importance of literature in James’s formation also stemmed from its resonance with his intuitive grasp of an integrated world. James’s “obsession” with the novels of Thackeray, particularly Vanity Fair, was a decisive part of this developing awareness, and it fed directly into his close observations of the personality in society. He absorbed, too, what may inadequately be called the politics of Thackeray, that sharp satire by which the novelist exposed the petty pretensions and frustrated ambition of middle-class British society. But, more than anything else, James recognised early that literature offered him a vision of society, a unique glimpse of the human forces and struggles which animated history.

James, as a boy growing up in a small colonial society, absorbed everything that European civilization offered to him. He immersed himself in its history and literature, in its classical foundations, in its art and music; but, at the same time he rebelled against his formal schooling, the authority of Queen’s Royal College, the island’s premier institution, and its British public school masters. He was, as he said many times, “a bright boy”; but he was determined to go his own way and to establish himself independently in the world.

There was a similar mixture of classical and innovative features in the early stories which marked the beginning of James’s writing career. Aside from his growing local reputation as a cricket reporter, James had begun, during the 1920s, to write fiction. It was in the style of the novels and short stories of the metropolitan writers, and yet its subject matter, barrackyard life, was new and authentically Caribbean. James was drawn to the vitality of backstreet life, particularly to the independence and resourcefulness of its women. It became the creative source for his first published pieces.

La Divina Pastora (1927) and Triumph (1929) establish James’s potential as a novelist. Moreover they reveal the foundation of James’s imaginative skill in his close observation of the raw material of human life. This closeness to the lives of ordinary men and women was something James consciously developed; but he never shook off his sense of being an outsider, of looking on rather than being a participant in the vibrancy of the barrackyard communities. The early fiction was marked by the memorable characters James created, his stories woven from the rich images he had stored in his mind’s eye, the prose brimming with wit and satire as he caught the sounds of the street in his dialogue. These elements he fused into subtle and carefully-crafted narratives.

A technique James used on more than one occasion was to re-work stories which he had heard or which had been told to him. He was particularly fascinated by tales in which the line between the real and the mysterious was blurred, for it was here he recognised that the imagination had greatest scope and opened up to both reader and writer an area of knowledge beyond the limits of the familiar world. Although his life took a different course after his departure from Trinidad in 1932, James never lost his perspective on life as a novelist nor his sense of the strangeness of human experience.

II. BRITAIN: 1932-1938

James sailed to England at the age of 31 with the intention of becoming a novelist. It was a journey many undertook from the colonies. Some sought education abroad, particularly entry into the professions of law and medicine; others were simply hungry for the experiences of a bigger world than the one which circumscribed the familiar society of their youth. For James, an educated black man, the move to England was critical if he was to realise his literary ambitions. He was already a published author. Furthermore he was mature, and confident that his early life in the Caribbean had equipped him with the essential outlook and skills to make his way in the metropolis.

The developed sense James had of himself was conveyed in the first pieces he wrote after his arrival in England – nowhere more strikingly than in the account of the Edith Sitwell meeting he attended in Bloomsbury. Here James again reminded his readers in the Caribbean of his talent as a novelist; but it is much more than that. James, with his fine characterisation, sense of drama and sly wit, set the scene for the encounter between the doyenne of English literary life and the colonial, newly arrived from an island which most of the English had difficulty in locating. As James often remarked, the people he met were generally astonished by his command of the language (adding, usually with a wry grin, that it would have been more astonishing if he hadn’t mastered it); but it was his comprehensive and detailed knowledge of European civilization, its art, history, literature and music, which caught the intellectuals, not least Miss Sitwell, by surprise.

The substance of James’s exchange with Edith Sitwell, the question of poetic form, offers a glimpse of the early ideas about creativity and technique which James continued to develop over many years. His comments here suggested that he was generally hostile to the innovations of the modern school, particularly given the prominence of form over “genuine poetic fire”; but he worked much more intensively at this relationship, particularly its historical dimensions, within the broader context of his engagement with revolutionary politics. Ironically, though, the commitment James made to a political career meant that he never acknowledged publicly, until much later, the central place of this project in his life’s work.

James spent a good deal of his first year in England living in Nelson, Lancashire with his Trinidadian friend, the cricketer, Learie Constantine. Working closely together on Constantine’s memoirs, their friendship deepened and they forged a strong political bond around the issue of independence for the West Indies. James’s document on this question, much of it drafted before he left Trinidad, was first published with Constantine’s help by a small Nelson firm. Later, an abridged form appeared in Leonard Woolf’s pamphlet series as The Case for West Indian Self-Government (1933).

James’s examination of the colonial question had initially focused upon a prominent local figure, Captain Cipriani, whose career he analysed as reflective of more general movements among the people of the Caribbean. The shortened version, however, was not biographical, but concise and factual. It outlined conditions in Trinidad – the population, the social divisions, the form of government – for an audience whose knowledge was severely limited; and yet in its quiet, satirical tone, it was profoundly subversive. James’s sharp observations of the cringing hypocrisy and mediocrity among those holding position in colonial society was strongly reminiscent of the style of his favourite novelists, Thackeray and Bennett. This was not surprising, given that his essay, The Case for West Indian Self-Government, was rooted in the early phase of James’s life; thereafter, his approach to the colonial question was transformed (shown clearly in his polemical piece, Abyssinia and the Imperialists) as he became swept up in the political turmoil of pre-war Europe.

The impression James made in English literary circles had, from the beginning, been promising. His job as a cricket reporter on the Manchester Guardianincreased his public profile, helping him, at first, to publicise the case for West Indian independence; but soon James was swimming in much stronger political currents. His experience of living in Lancashire had exposed him to the industrial militancy of working people. It was also during this time that James began to study seriously the writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky; and the response of his Nelson friends to his developing political ideas acted as a useful reminder of the deeply rooted radicalism in the lives of ordinary men and women. He was made aware, too, of the constant conflict between their pragmatic political sense and developed perspective on the world and the positions taken by their so-called leaders. This division marked James deeply, establishing a creative tension in his own political work for the rest of his life.

James’s move to London in 1933 marked the beginning of his career as a leading figure in the Trotskyist movement. His approach to the questions of revolutionary politics acquired a distinctive stamp through his attempt to integrate the struggles of the colonial areas into the European revolutionary tradition. The Ethiopian crisis of 1936 was a turning point, as James was forced to confront the equivocation of the British labour movement in the face of imperialist aggression in Africa. His essay, Abyssinia and the Imperialists (1936), was an early acknowledgement of the importance of an independent movement of Africans and people of African descent in the struggle for freedom. It was a position James developed more fully during the second half of the 1930s, particularly through his close collaboration with George Padmore in the International African Service Bureau. But James also drew upon his extensive historical research into the 1791 San Domingo revolution.

The slave revolution led by Toussaint L’Ouverture raised very concretely the question James was seeking to address in his revolutionary politics – not just the nature and course of revolution itself, the changing relationship between leaders and the people; but the dynamic of the struggles situated at the peripheries and those located in the centre. It was a question which turned up in different forms throughout James’s career – at times it was posed as the relationship between the proletariat of the imperialist nations and the indigenous populations; at others, as the connection between the struggles of different sections of a single national population.

Since James’s arrival in England, he had been actively working on a book about the San Domingo revolution. In 1936 he decided to produce a play, Toussaint L’Ouverture, from his drafted manuscript, casting Paul Robeson in the title role. It was a magnificent part for Robeson, given the severe limits he found as a black man seeking dramatic roles; but there were other political considerations which lay behind James’s decision to stage the play at London’s Westminster Theatre. It was planned as an intervention in the debates surrounding the Ethiopian crisis.

James presented to his audience a virtually forgotten example from the past – of slaves, uneducated and yet organised by the mechanism of plantation production itself, who, in the wake of the French revolution, rose against their masters and succeeded not only in winning their freedom; but, in going on to defeat the might of three colonial powers, secured their victory through independence. At the centre of this outstanding struggle in revolutionary historywas the figure of Toussaint L’Ouverture. He was the natural focus for a dramatic account of these tumultuous events; and James’s play focused upon his rise and fall as leader of the slaves.

Drama was a form for which James had a particular feel. His lifelong interest in Shakespeare was based on the dramatic quality of the work; and James recognised that theatre provided the arena in which to explore “political” ideas as refracted through human character. It was through the juxtaposition of personality and events that James sought to highlight some of the broader historical and political themes raised by the San Domingo revolution. He hoped to make his audience aware that the colonial populations were not dependent upon leadership from Europe in their struggle for freedom, that they already had a revolutionary tradition of their own; and, as James later made explicit, he wrote his study of the 1791 slave revolution with the coming upheavals of Africa in mind.

The story of Toussaint involved his clash with other remarkable figures of the time, Napoleon, Dessalines, Henri Christophe; but it was equally formed by his relationship with the largely anonymous mass of black slaves. James acknowledged their centrality in the opening of the play. The disappearance of the slaves, however, and James’s increasing focus on personalities gradually undermined the vitality and drama of the work. This was something which James, aware of his limitations as a dramatist, was the first to admit; but in many ways, too, it was no accident, for it reflected his particular interpretation of Toussaint’s failure as a revolutionary leader.[1]

James remained firmly convinced of the effectiveness of drama as a medium for exploring what he considered to be the key political questions – the relationship between individual and society, the personality in history. Later, in 1944 when he was planning to write a second play based on the life of Harriet Tubman, he recognised the difficulties inherent in such a project:

The play will represent a conflict between slaves and slave-owners, an exemplification of the age-old conflict between the oppressed and oppressors. It will, therefore, be of exceptional interest in the world of today and particularly of tomorrow. . . . Now the trouble with all such plays written by both amateurs (99%) and talented playwrights (1%) is that either they know the history and the politics, etc., and write a political tract or they write something full of stage-craft, but with no understanding of history and of politics. Politics is a profession. Only people who know about politics can write about it. Politics is made by people, people who live for politics, but who hate, love, are ambitious, mean, noble, jealous, kind, cruel. And all these human passions affect their politics. . . . That is true but that is the appearance. But the essence of the thing is different. Political and social forces change the circumstances in which people live. . . . Now the job is to translate the economic and political forces into living human beings, so that one gets interested in them for what they are as people. If that is not done, then you will have perhaps a good history, good politics, but a bad play.[2]

James wrote both the play, Toussaint L’Ouverture, and his book, The Black Jacobins (1938), while he was an active member of the Trotskyist movement. His analysis was deeply marked by his particular political allegiance, though a number of the ideas central to his interpretation of the 1791 slave revolution raised, implicitly, a challenge to certain assumptions which were commonplace on the revolutionary Left. First of all, he cast doubt on the assumption that the revolution would take place first in Europe, in the advanced capitalist countries, and that this would act as a model and a catalyst for the later upheavals in the underdeveloped world. Secondly, there were clear indications that the lack of specially-trained leaders, a vanguard, did not hold back the movement of the San Domingo revolution. These differences were exacerbated by James’s study of the Communist International, World Revolution (1937).

The problem James, and many others, faced in the 1930s was to define their position as revolutionary Marxists opposed to the Stalinism of Moscow and its British wing, the Communist Party. Trotsky, one of the great figures of the Russian revolution but persecuted and forced into exile after Lenin’s premature death, became the focus for this opposition; though what he symbolised, in the struggle against Stalin, was often more important to people like James than their commitment to Trotskyism as such.

Europe’s political landscape had been transformed by the Russian revolution. The question of the nature of the Soviet Union dominated debate among intellectuals and activists as the world drew closer to another war, raising again the spectre of revolution in its aftermath. For James and his associates, grouped in small factions operating independently of (and often in opposition to) the organised labour movement, it was imperative to document Stalin’s betrayal of the fundamental revolutionary principles upon which the Soviet Union had been founded. World Revolution was such an attempt. James relied largely on secondary sources, gathered from across Europe, to build a devastating case. At the core of his interpretation lay Stalin’s 1924 pronouncement, “Socialism in One Country”; for at a stroke the international character of the revolutionary movement was undermined and the fate of the fragile new Workers’ State was severed from the organisation of the socialist revolution in other parts of the world. The consequences were far-reaching; not just in the barbarities Stalin perpetrated domestically, but also in his suppression, through the Third International, of the workers’ movements in France, Germany and Spain.

The method which underlay James’s analysis of the Soviet Union and the history of the Communist International was characteristic. He attempted to expose the dialectical interplay between the key personalities, Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin, and the much greater historical and political forces at work in this critical period. These moments of transition, the crisis in government as the old order gave way to something new, became a recurrent theme in James’s work – from World Revolution and The Black Jacobins to his approach, especially during the latter part of his life, to colonial independence and his understanding of Shakespeare.

Although James provided a book badly needed by those on the Left who were opposed to Stalinism, World Revolution hinted at serious differences between the author’s interpretation of recent historical events and the position of Trotsky. As James stated rather baldly in his analysis of Stalin’s rise to power: “What is important is not that Trotsky was beaten, but that he was beaten so quickly.” He had put his finger on an issue which later became decisive – the question of the bureaucracy; but there were other unresolved problems. Despite the vigorous discussion in Mexico in 1939 between James and Trotsky on a number of the issues raised by World Revolution, James had already begun to chart a new course in the interpretation of the method and ideas of revolutionary Marxism.[3]

At a time when Stalinism was pervasive among the British intelligentsia, James was often reminded that it was his Trotskyist politics which stood in the way of a promising career as a writer, historian and critic. But by 1938 James had moved a long way from his early ambitions. Europe, in turn, now confined his extraordinary energies and intellectual range. He seized the chance to visit the United States; and the conditions of the New World inspired his greatest and most original work.


The purpose of James’s trip to America was to address audiences on the political situation in Europe as war approached; and to be a major contributor to the work of the Trotskyist movement on the black question. These topics formed the basis of the nationwide speaking tour which James embarked upon shortly after his arrival in November 1938. It was towards the end of his exhausting schedule, at a meeting in Los Angeles, that James first met Constance Webb. Almost immediately he began his correspondence with her. The first letters from Mexico – evocative, witty and brimming with lively observations of character – were a vivid reminder of James’s early aspirations as a novelist; the later exchanges, beginning in 1943, were more intense, indeed passionate, as James sought to break free from the confines of his European background. Something powerful had been unlocked by his experience of America. He sought to articulate it through his exchanges with Constance; and the exploration of the differences between them in background, race, gender and age became a creative force behind their remarkable relationship.

James’s correspondence, beginning in 1939 and continuing for over a decade, constitutes a profound meditation on human life. The synthesis he was seeking, the full and free integration of his own personality within the context of his love for a woman, he recognised as a general need among people in the modern world. Consciously employing the dialectical method, James examined the relationship between chance and necessity within his own life. But his letters showed, too, how far he could extend his analysis, from the very personal details of self-discovery to some of the most fundamental questions concerning the future of humanity. At the centre, however, was Constance, the young American woman, who grasped instinctively the connections between those facets of human experience which he had to work hard to bring into an active relationship.

The question of human creativity, the central theme of the letters, not only enabled James to make a direct connection with Constance Webb, particularly through his encouragement of her writing of poetry; but, at the same time, it took him to the heart of the civilization process itself. The developed historical perspective which James brought to bear on the understanding of this process led him to highlight what was distinctive in Constance’s creative work. He recognised it as the expression of the experiences of a twentieth century American woman. He saw Constance as a product of the most conscious age in human history; growing up with material advantages unknown to her European counterparts and taking for granted, as the property of everyone, some of the most advanced political ideas known to mankind. Her poetry reflected this. But it also, inescapably at its core, gave expression to the conflict which raged through modern society, nowhere more intensely than in America – the conflict between her highly developed sense of her own unique personality and the form of society which dissipated or stifled all creative energy.

These exchanges with Constance Webb, during the 1940s, cannot be considered apart from the very ambitious project – to understand American society on its own terms – which James had set himself soon after his arrival in the United States. His approach was to see America as a civilization in its own right. But he saw, too, that it contained within its essential features the key to the future of civilization as a whole. For almost a decade James pursued this project privately, while being deeply immersed in more conventional political work which arose through his involvement in the Trotskyist movement. These two areas of his life were kept separate, indeed they often appeared to be in conflict; but the connections between them were profound and released, in James, an explosion of intellectual creativity.

The doubts concerning Trotsky’s method and analysis which James had begun to articulate in his work on history were thrown into sharp relief by the crisis posed to the revolutionary movement by the signing, in 1940, of the Hitler-Stalin pact. This raised again – now with great political urgency – the question of the nature of the Soviet Union and whether it could still be defended as a revolutionary society, albeit one with serious flaws. James was plunged into what he later described as “one of the most extreme and difficult crises of my political life.”[4]

In order to clarify his position, James embarked on a serious study of the Russian revolution and the development of the Workers’ State. Quickly, though, he found himself drawn deeply into questions of philosophy and method, for, as he recognised, “it was not a question of what Russia was, although that was a subordinate question. It was a question of what was the type of Marxism which led to one conclusion and the type of Marxism which led to the other.”[5]

Much of James’s work was carried out with a small handful of collaborators in a group which became known as the Johnson Forest Tendency. Two of his closest associates were women – Grace Lee, a philosophy Ph.D. and Raya Dunayevskaya, Trotsky’s former secretary whose expertise was the Soviet Union.[6]Between them they pooled their different linguistic skills and intellectual training to undertake a comprehensive study of modern history and the dialectic.

In one of his letters to Constance Webb, James gave a valuable picture of their collective working method:

We are at Rae’s (Raya Dunayevskaya). Grace, Rae, I and another friend. We have just worked out the basis for the defence of Germany – pointing out its great contribution to civilization in the past and the necessity of its incorporation into the Europe of today – a serious contribution – the only contribution I fear that will be made to any serious understanding of the problem of Germany. It is going to be fine. As we talked I felt very very pleased. One person writes but in the world in which we live all serious contributions have to be collective; the unification of all phases of life make it impossible for a single mind to grasp it in all its aspects. Although one mind may unify, the contributory material and ideas must come from all sources and types of mind. . . . The best mind is the one so basically sound in analytical approach and capacity to absorb, imagination to fuse, that he makes a totality of all these diverse streams.[7]

Towards the end of the 1940s the members of the Johnson Forest Tendency began to publish the results of their intense collaborative exercise. The lengthy essay, Dialectical Materialism and the Fate of Humanity (1947) was James’s attempt to sort out some of the muddles in Trotskyist thinking – in particular the problem of thought and its relationship to the dynamic of history. He was seeking to clarify the dialectical method – the process by which, what Hegel called “the abstract universal” becomes concrete; and to demonstrate, through its use as a methodological tool, the progressive movement of society. It is one of the very few places, too, that James offered a definition of socialism – the complete expression of democracy – mindful as he always was of its distortion through identification with Stalinism.

This article preceded the much more detailed discussion of method in the documents James wrote from Nevada (Notes on Dialectics, 1948). Nevertheless, it covers much of the same ground and its essay form makes more accessible some of the ideas which were critical in James’s definition of a new and independent Marxist position.

With tremendous verve and historical sweep, James sets out to trace the development of mankind – the objectification of the subject, the search for completeness, integration, universality. At the centre of his analysis stood the Russian revolution, for it opened a window on this process. It represented an advanced stage in this historical movement; and yet it was still imperfect, not fully realised. Indeed, as James’s dialectical method exposed, its very imperfections called forth a response which in its negativity matched the concrete achievements of October 1917:

It is the creative power, the democratic desires, the expansion of the human personality, the record of human achievement that was the Russian revolution. It is these which have called forth the violence, the atrocities, the state organised as Murder Incorporated. Only such violence could have repressed democracy.

For James, however, Stalinist Russia expressed in the most extreme form the contradictions which ran throughout modern society, as the increasing power and self-knowledge of ordinary people came up against enhanced powers of rule from above in the form of bureaucratic structures.

James was aware of these tensions all around him in the United States. It was to be seen nowhere more clearly than in the contradictory position of blacks, their integration and segregation, within American society.

James’s work on history and the dialectic thus cannot be separated from his more active engagement with contemporary political questions within the United States. It was difficult, however, for him to play a prominent part in the Johnson Forest Tendency’s organisational work, for he had overstayed the limit on his US visa and, after 1940, was forced to operate largely underground. But James continued to write on the race question, developing his understanding of the revolutionary history of America’s black population and establishing the independence and vitality of the struggle for basic democratic rights. Not only did James understand the immense political significance of these struggles for America as a whole, for its black communities exposed some of its deepest and most intense contradictions; but he saw too that America’s blacks provided the link with the millions of colonial peoples worldwide, struggling to throw off the shackles of imperialist rule. James’s statement to the Trotskyist movement, The Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Problem in the USA(1948) revealed the clarity with which he understood the political questions it posed; but, at the same time, his interpretation presented to the orthodox Left some of the same difficulties as his earlier work on the San Domingo slave uprising. It was, and remains, a remarkably prescient document. 

What James’s theoretical and activist work taught him above all was the speed of historical movement. The problem became one of thought. Following Hegel, James contrasted the operation of dialectical thinking, creative reason, with the static categories of understanding which he identified as the fundamental flaw in the Trotskyist method itself. For James, it was revealed most clearly in Trotsky’s approach to the nature of the Soviet Union. 

The Class Struggle (1950) was an important statement on this question. In putting forward the theory of state capitalism, James and his associates in the Johnson Forest Tendency offered a set of conceptual tools inseparable from the dynamic of historical development, that is, one which matched the development of capitalism itself. In contrast, they concluded that Trotsky and his followers, trapped within the sterile Stalin-Trotsky debate, had separated their understanding of the Soviet Union from the more general movement of modern history, failing thereby to root the analysis of bureaucracy in an understanding of the stage capitalism had reached worldwide.

According to James, the contradictions of the Workers’ State were still to be found in the process of production. Nationalisation had transferred the struggle between capital and labour to the level of the state, a characteristic of advanced capitalist systems everywhere, including the United States. In the case of the Soviet Union, however, the Party had become fused with the state. 

Having reached this position, James and his associates broke with the notion of the Party as the revolutionary vanguard. The logical development of their analysis was to see that the next decisive stage in history would be the overthrow of the party itself, the emergence of the people against the structures of bureaucratic rule.

Cumulatively then the philosophical and political conclusions which James reached during his American years made his severance from the Trotskyist movement inevitable. Through his work on history and the dialectic and his engagement with pressing political questions in the United States, particularly the black question, James had identified serious problems in Trotskyist ideas and method. Furthermore he had defined a new position with respect to the nature of the Soviet Union and the role of the vanguard party.

James’s commitment to revolutionary Marxism, however, remained unshakeable. He recognised, though, that the tradition in the twentieth century had become distorted and obscured through the bitter struggle between Trotsky and Stalin; and in establishing the foundations of his new, independent Marxist position, James traced his ideas directly from the work of Lenin. 

James’s fifteen-year stay in the United States is widely acknowledged to have produced his most important work. He often said so himself. Undoubtedly, the documents he wrote as a member of the Johnson Forest Tendency constitute a major contribution to the theory and practice of Marxism, extending the tradition to incorporate the distinctive features of the world in which James lived. But they represent more than this. They made possible the original work which came in the following years.

The year 1950 was a watershed for James. He felt palpably his freedom from the narrow questions of revolutionary politics which had, for so many years, absorbed his energies. At the same time his intellectual confidence was secure, rooted as it was in his mastery of the philosophical foundations of his Marxist perspective. It was reflected in the breadth and urgency of James’s later writings; and in his exploration of new questions – questions of art, culture and aesthetics. Although in some ways he was returning to the themes of his early years, his approach was deeply marked by the new and original conception of political life which he had developed by the end of his stay in the United States. It had been shaped decisively by the conditions of the New World. At the centre of this vision was his recognition of the creative energies of ordinary men and women and their critical place in modern history as the force for humanity. If the conventional political work James had carried out in the Johnson Forest Tendency had brought him to this point, it was, above all, his experience of living in America which changed and moulded his mature perspective on the world. 

What James had discovered in the New World was that the question he considered to lie at the heart of the civilization process itself – the relationship between individual freedom and social life – was most starkly posed. He understood the movement of the modern world to be one of increasing integration. The growing interconnectedness of things through the expansion of communications, the centralisation of capital, the accumulation of knowledge, the breakdown of national boundaries, was mirrored, in his view, by the increasing sophistication and awareness of the human subject. But never before had the individual personality been so fragmented and restricted in the realisation of its creative capacities. James uncovered in America an intense desire among people to bring the separate facets of human experience into an active relationship, to express their full and free individuality within new and expanded conceptions of social life. This was “the struggle for happiness.” 

James was conscious of the struggle within his own life, for he, too, was seeking integration. It found striking expression in the handwritten note to Constance Webb which James attached to the back of his essay, Dialectical Materialism and the Fate of Humanity. He wrote:

This is the man who loves you. I took up dialectic five years ago. I knew a lot of things before and I was able to master it. I know a lot of things about loving you. I am only just beginning to apply them. I can master that with the greatest rapidity – just give me a hand. I feel all sorts of new powers, freedoms etc. surging in me. You released so many of my constrictions. . . . We will live. This is our new world – where there is no distinction between political and personal any more.

Unfortunately for James the distinction was etched deeply in his personality. It had been reinforced over many years by his involvement in the revolutionary movement, particularly by the difficult conditions under which he had carried out his definitive political work while in America. 

Through his relationship with Constance Webb, however, James had begun to understand the logic of his life’s course – his struggle against the limits of European bourgeois society, his commitment to the revolutionary movement; and his recognition that in its turn this very movement had confined him and separated essential aspects of his being. 

By the late 1940s the tensions between his political role in the Johnson Forest Tendency and his personal commitment to a shared life with Constance Webb were almost tearing him apart. He knew that his future work would take him in new directions; and he felt, acutely, the expansion of his creative powers as he made the leap from Europe to America and shook himself free, at last, from the confines of intellectual and political discourse. His work on American civilization was an attempt to give expression to this newly found freedom.[8]

James began to draft his manuscript, American Civilization (originally entitled Notes on American Civilization) in 1949. Many of the ideas he had already explored in his private correspondence with Constance Webb; but it was his decisive break with the European tradition (what he called “old bourgeois civilization”, with its oppositions between art and culture, intellectuals and the people, politics and everyday life) which enabled him to fuse the different elements – history, literature, popular art and detailed observations of daily life – into a dense work of startling originality. James was seeking to grasp the whole at a particular moment in history; and yet, at the same time, the movement of the narrative, the shift from established literary sources to the lives of ordinary men and women, reflected his understanding of the general dynamic of history. In short, he aimed to distill the universal progress of civilization into a specific contrast between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The culture of the intellectuals was giving way to the emergence of the people as the animating force of history.

James’s work on American civilization thus contained two parts, bridged by a long chapter on the popular arts. The first half of the manuscript was dominated by a critical reading of the work of Whitman and Melville. Just as James himself had broken with the European forms, so too, he believed, had these two nineteenth-century American writers; and he understood the innovative style and substance of their creative work to give expression to the currents of the new democracy. But in exploring the themes which lay at the centre of their writing, particularly the relationship between individual and society, James was seeking to cast light on the crisis facing modern America. It was his contention that its essential features were anticipated in the work of Whitman and Melville. 

Both writers had been witness to the beginning of the modern phase in America’s history marked by the Civil War. The old frontier spirit of the early settlers had given way to the new individualism of the captains of industry; and the steady appropriation of the ethos of freedom in the name of market expansion had gone hand in hand with the subjection of the mass of workers to an oppressive economic and social structure. It was here that James located the creative work of Whitman and Melville, observing: “The greatest writers seem to be those who come at the climax of one age, but this is because the new age has grown up inside the old and they are watching both.” 

The reading James offered of Whitman’s poetry highlighted its celebration of individuality. But at the same time James uncovered, too, the intense desire of “this singer of loneliness” for social connection. He argued that if Whitman failed to resolve the contradiction between individual and society in the themes and substance of his poetry, his development of a new form, free verse (“a chant to be sung by millions of men”) became the link with his community of fellow Americans. 

According to James, Melville from the beginning placed his characters within a social setting. He recognised that the individualism Whitman celebrated, in its extreme forms, threatened to bring about the destruction of society itself. James drew attention to Melville’s originality as an artist in his creation of the character Ahab: “Such characters come once in many centuries and are as rare as men who found new religions, philosophers who revolutionize human thinking, and statesmen who create new political forms.”[9] This new departure mirrored, for James, Whitman’s formal poetic innovation, as both writers, sensitive to the dynamics of a changing world and seeking to give expression to its essential movement, found themselves pushed to the limits of their creative imagination. 

But, in arguing for the contemporary significance of Whitman and Melville, the insight they offered into the postwar world, James took great care to stress that they were not writers of “political treatises.” His interest was in their distinctive artistic personality. Furthermore, he was attempting to develop a method of criticism which would enable him to expose, through an analysis of creative work itself, hidden currents at work in society and history. 

James took this approach further in his book on American civilization. He placed a discussion of the popular arts – soap operas, Hollywood films, detective novels – at the centre of his understanding of modern society; and he used it as the bridge into the lives of the American people. Previously, the presence of ordinary men and women had been glimpsed only through the filter of the intellectual tradition; now, he argued, in the area of popular culture their creative role in the civilization process was for the first time fully revealed.

In a long, passionately argued letter to Bell, James illuminates the ideas and method he was seeking to develop in his work on America. Central was his broad conception of artistic work, his refusal to separate modern popular forms from “high art.” James was now tackling the question he had already explored in his correspondence with Constance Webb and which he believed to be critical in the development of humanity, namely the relationship between creativity and democracy.

Conscious of the disdain of the European intellectuals for American culture, James argued for the recognition of America’s distinctive contribution to the understanding of civilization. It was his view that American society represented a new stage, its people highly developed and conscious of themselves as never before in history but confronting, in every part of their lives, from the workplace to the most intimate personal relations, the oppressive weight of society. For James the popular arts were something new. They were the expression of what was unique about America in the movement of world society as a whole. He believed that only the mass art forms could encompass all the complexities of modern life, anticipating a future in which art and life were in a close, active, and evolving relationship. They were the powerful symbol of both the triumph and the crisis of the modern world, for they revealed the enormous creative potential inherent in modern society at the same time as they laid bare the tremendous conflicts raging at the core of social life.

James’s letter to Bell was part of a series of exchanges he initiated at the same time with other critics. These documents form an integral part of the ambitious project on which he was now embarked. Its first full articulation was American Civilization.

The unifying theme which ran throughout the 1950 manuscript, pulling together the disparate parts, was the opposition between democracy and totalitarianism. James was acutely conscious of the particular historical moment which was moulding the next phase of his work. Against the backdrop of the Cold War, as the superpowers faced each other across a ruined Europe and the rhetoric of individual freedom versus state repression reflected the bitter struggle being waged within America itself, James planned a series of books. His concern was no less than the conditions of survival of civilization itself. In a narrow, personal sense, too, James was acutely conscious of the critical moment in his own life as he fought to avoid deportation from the United States.

The integrated vision which inspired his extraordinary manuscript on America emerged then from James’s profound grasp of his own sense of history. It was an experience he felt to his core. But the creative synthesis he achieved and expressed in American Civilization was tragically short-lived, for the battle raging within James, between his life as a revolutionary in a small political organisation and his need for a fully integrated life, was one he eventually lost. His marriage to Constance Webb foundered and his fight to avoid deportation pulled him back into the old forms of political life.[10]

James’s understanding of Melville lay at the centre of his work on America. James’s 1950 text as a whole, both in its vision of humanity and in its method, was strongly reminiscent of Melville’s finest novel, Moby Dick.[11] Later James made his debt to Melville more explicit. He turned his drafted chapter on the nineteenth-century writers into a full-length critical study of Moby Dick; and the book, Mariners, Renegades and Castaways (1953), became the basis of James’s political campaign to avoid deportation from the United States. 

In focusing upon one part of his much more comprehensive study of civilization, James hoped to develop his ideas about the creative process in society and history through debate with a number of American and European critics. The passionate tone and sweep of the letters which he wrote during 1953 to Bell, Leyda and Schapiro reveal the scope and urgency of the project beginning to unfold. These early exchanges also establish the elements of James’s distinctive approach to questions of art and aesthetics; specifically his acknowledgement of the role of the audience in creative work, his adaptation of Melville’s theory of original characters in great literature, and his careful excavations of the process by which life is transmuted into art. 

The subjects James raised with literary critics ranged from comic strips to Aeschylus; and yet it is important to recognise that they are located within a single conception of civilization and its evolution. 

Two essays written at much the same time, Notes on Hamlet (1953) and Popular Art and the Cultural Tradition (1954) define more clearly the broad historical contours within which James situated explosions of artistic creativity. For him, the development of the character Hamlet heralded the birth of the modern age – the freedom of the individual, the brilliant entry into history of the Cartesian subject (“I think therefore I am”). The work of the twentieth century filmmakers, however, marked a new stage. The innovative form and substance of film revealed to James what was distinctive about the twentieth century.

James argued that by developing a new form, a mass art form, Griffith, Chaplin and Eisenstein were posing anew the relationship between individual and society. In his view their work, with its panoramic scope and close-up focus, reflected more generally the dialectical movement of the contemporary world. At its centre was the presence of ordinary men and women and their need to express the uniqueness of their individual personalities within the expanded context of world society.

The critical figure in this historical shift from the old world to the new, from Europe to America, from the isolated, fragmented subjects of Proust or Picasso to the power and presence of humanity itself as the creative force in civilization, was Melville. In James’s understanding Melville’s work formed the bridge. It was part of a tradition which stretched backwards into history; and yet, for James, Melville was the artist whose work looked to the future.[12]  Moby Dickwith its fusion of nature and society, individual and community, the particular and the universal, was filmic. The broad canvas (the panoramic scope) against which Melville situated individual character (the human personality in close-up) anticipated the creative developments of the twentieth century arts – particularly film. 

But Melville’s artistic prescience was not accidental. In developing the theory of the original character (“. . . a type of human being that had never existed before in the world . . . the character itself becomes a kind of revolving light illuminating what is around it. Everything else grows and develops to correspond to this central figure so that the original character, so to speak, helps the artist create a portrait not only of a new type of human being but also of society and the people who correspond to him”), James was seeking to explore the connections between artistic creativity and moments of fundamental change in society.[13] This became clarified as the relationship between the expansion of democracy (which resulted in new conceptions of the human personality and social life) and creative innovation (which refracted and gave expression to these hidden currents in human history).

Melville’s depiction, in Moby Dick, of the ship’s crew as the symbol of humanity against the destructive power of Ahab and the vacillation of Ishmael, heralded the appearance in the twentieth century of ordinary people as the force for civilization. James exposed the historical antecedents. They were to be found in the work of Shakespeare.

Like Whitman and Melville, Shakespeare wrote at a critical moment in history, as one era gave way to another. It was caught both in the form and substance of his work. For James King Lear held the key, being the dramatic culmination of Shakespeare’s exploration of the question of government through the history plays and tragedies. Critical was the appearance of a new character, Edgar/Poor Tom – “Edgar, by his origins, by his experiences as Poor Tom and the various crises through which Shakespeare puts him, emerges as the embodiment of a man not born but shaped by a society out of joint, to be able to set it right.”[14]

It was characteristic of James that, as a prelude to offering his particular interpretation of Shakespeare, he outlined the foundations of his method. This involved taking a position vigorously opposed to the conventional tradition of literary criticism. James began to make explicit the principles which governed his approach in the opening pages of a document known as Preface to Criticism (1955). He anchored his critical method in Aristotle’s Poetics. He took as his point of departure the dramatic quality of Shakespeare’s work and made central an understanding of the performance itself, the role of the audience and the development of character and plot. It is not hard to identify here the emergent form of the project which later became Beyond A Boundary

The interpretation of King Lear James offered in the later pages of Preface to Criticism, and his belief in its central importance as a political play, clarified over the subsequent three decades. In particular, decolonisation and its aftermath threw questions of government, at the heart of King Lear, into ever more sharp relief. 

IV. THE AFRICAN DIASPORA: 1957-1989. (Africa, The Caribbean, America, Britain)

The Gold Coast revolution stood at the centre of the work James carried out during the second part of his life. The issues raised by this landmark in modern history drew him back into active involvement with the Pan-African movement; and, as both his private correspondence and public writings revealed, James was interested in exploring the dynamic connections between different aspects of the black diaspora in order to establish the presence of Africa at the centre of the emerging postwar order. James’s letter (to Friends) of March 1957 represents a particularly fine example of his integrated perspective.

Despite the focus provided by the events of decolonisation, it is important, however, not to lose sight of the broader dialectical pattern which marked this phase in James’s life – the creative links between his engagement with specific political moments and the much bigger intellectual project he was pursuing concerning the development of democracy in world history. There was constant movement between the two, between the particular and the universal; and, at certain times, James achieved a remarkable original synthesis within his own writing. 

The letters on politics which James wrote to his associates in the years following his departure from America focused upon contemporary trends in eastern Europe (specifically the Hungarian revolution), Africa, the Caribbean and the United States. These upheavals raised to prominence the power and presence of ordinary people in the struggle for civilization. Challenging both oppressive political structures and the conventional forms of leadership and organisation, the events of the late 1950s were for James the concrete manifestation of social currents he had anticipated in work carried out a decade earlier. But as these letters show, James also saw their profound connection. Not only did these upheavals underline the general power of ordinary men and women to intervene critically in historical events. They also marked something new and specific – the appearance of black and colonial peoples as a decisive force in the shaping of modern society. 

James returned to the Caribbean in 1958 after an absence of twenty-six years. He was highly sensitive to the significance of the historical moment. He saw the approach of independence as a time when fundamental questions concerning government, society and the individual were unusually clarified. Moreover he held that independence offered the populations of the colonial territories a unique opportunity to chart their future, weaving elements from their particular past with broader currents animating the modern world. James raised these issues in his public speeches, writings and journalism during the late 1950s and early 1960s. He was anxious to make the Caribbean people aware that they were indeed at the forefront of the struggle to found the new society – one, James anticipated, which would reflect something fundamental about the movement of world society as a whole.

Three articles James wrote while editor of The Nation illustrate these themes and have remarkable unity. First of all, in an important essay on Abraham Lincoln, James raised the most general question posed by independence – the question of democracy. His discussion drew upon his own break with the European tradition and his commitment to the society emergent in the New World. It was here that he saw the future of the Caribbean. Just as Lincoln, responding to a particular moment in history, extended and deepened the conception of democracy, so too, according to James, the Caribbean peoples at independence would emerge as a dynamic force – extending further in the twentieth century the theory and practice of democracy. James left no doubt about his recognition of the power, creativity and capacity for self-organisation among ordinary people. This was the theme of his later article on Carnival. But, for James, nothing gave more concrete focus to this dialectical interplay in modern history than the distinguished career of George Padmore. 

Over a period of several months, beginning in late 1959, James published in The Nation extracts from his drafted biography of Padmore. What was interesting about Padmore’s career was that it encompassed both the early struggles for freedom and democracy by colonial peoples which drew heavily on the European revolutionary movement; and the new, later, phase which was initiated by Nkrumah. The revolution in Ghana established Africa as the creative source for political resistance worldwide. It transformed at a stroke all previously held conceptions of revolutionary praxis. According to James, the work of Padmore, a West Indian, had been critical in this fundamental shift.

This theme, the relationship between the colonies and the metropolis, James took up again later, exploring it more fully in an appendix to the new edition of his classic work, The Black Jacobins. He recognised that questions of nationhood and national identity were at the heart of independence politics; but he had no time for the narrow, small-island mentality of the new Caribbean leaders. Indeed his challenge to them was explicit in the very title of his 1962 appendix, From Toussaint L’Ouverture to Fidel Castro

James’s view of the Caribbean was built upon a recognition of its distinctive past, its rich and diverse cultural traditions, its modern peoples; but, above all, he was fascinated by its peculiar place in the evolution of modern society. In The Black Jacobins he interpreted the plantation slaves to be among the first proletarians, working with industrial technology in the most advanced sector of Europe’s international economy. James believed that Caribbean society two hundred years ago had revealed the critical elements of a world system still in the early stages of its evolution. He understood the island societies at independence to be similarly placed. This lay behind his passionate advocacy of a West Indian federation. 

For James, federation became the collective symbol of the search for a new conception of nationhood appropriate to the world of the late twentieth century. At its core was the need to create something new from existing forms. But as he revealed in the conclusion to his appendix, this historical process was also refracted through the creative imagination and found concrete expression in the literary innovations of the Caribbean novelists. James’s discussion of the work of Cesaire, Naipaul, Lamming and Harris neglects, however, to mention his own highly original work, Beyond A Boundary. It was published in 1963, the year following Trinidadian independence. 

Beyond A Boundary completed the search for integration which James had begun in the Caribbean some sixty years before. As a boy he had grasped intuitively the interconnectedness of human experience; through political work in Europe’s revolutionary movement he developed a consistent method for approaching the complexity of the modern world; but it was his experience of America which enabled him to realise fully his integrated vision of humanity. Thus, it is almost impossible to think of Beyond A Boundary apart from his great, unpublished manuscript on American civilization. In both works James achieved an extraordinary creative synthesis, a fusion of the universal movement of world history with a particular moment in contemporary society. 

What James gave expression to in this book has to be understood as an extension of the tradition he had already established in his critical work on Shakespeare and Melville. If, according to James, Shakespeare heralded the birth of the individual personality and modern democracy in the creation of the character Hamlet and more fully developed it in King Lear (Edgar); if Melville recognised the danger posed by unbridled individualism and set against it the humanity of the crew; if Griffith, Eisenstein and Chaplin founded their creativity in the lives of ordinary men and women; then Beyond A Boundaryrepresented the next stage. It broke the existing categories which fragmented the aesthetic experience. Its originality as a study of the game of cricket – and yet Beyond A Boundary was neither a cricket book nor an autobiography – symbolised a new and expanded conception of humanity as the black and formerly colonial peoples burst onto the stage of world history. 

In the ten years since James’s departure from the United States he had been preoccupied with this central question – the relationship between democracy and creativity. It was rooted in his revolutionary Marxism. But James was now charting new areas – he was seeking to clarify some of his general ideas through the detailed examination of artistic explosions within history. He believed that at those moments in history when existing conceptions of democracy were being broken and expanded through political struggle, there was a release of tremendous creative power. Thus the innovation of artists, such as Shakespeare or Michelangelo, Mozart or Melville, Picasso or Jackson Pollock, came out of the struggle at these moments to redefine the human personality. In the twentieth century, however, James believed that what the individual artist in history had struggled to achieve was now the struggle of ordinary people everywhere. 

Beyond A Boundary was the product of this intense project. James’s analysis of the game of cricket highlighted the direction of his general thesis. The core of the book was the chapter, “What is Art?” – James’s exploration of the aesthetic experience. Later he intended to expand these ideas in another book built around an interpretation of photographs of cricketers in action. He wished to investigate here the sculptural dimensions of the game. What James had in mind may be guessed from the many notes and jottings he made at the time he began to write Beyond A Boundary. These suggest that he was interested in approaching the player in action as a form of public art, where “man is placed in his social environment in terms of artistic form”; and he was concerned to situate him within a historical tradition which began, in James’s view, with the shift from sculpture to tragic drama in early Greece. The cricketer was a modern expression of the individual personality pushing against the limits imposed on his full development by society. It was inseparable, for example, from the artistic impulse James interpreted to lie behind the work of the great twentieth century film-maker, D.W. Griffith, and which he described in the following terms: “It was essentially Greek in spirit, (but) concretely modern. He says always – man in society. His films show individuality in movement within a social form historically expressed. It is Shakespeare and Aeschylus over again. The same relation.”[15]

James transcended the division between high and popular art in Beyond A Boundary. This was something he achieved as a result of his stay in America, and it opened the way for him to excavate the aesthetic dimension of human experience as a single, yet multi-layered experience. It was here James established the area of integration, that creative fusion of individual and community, experience and knowledge, art and everyday life. Moreover, he recognised that what was achieved here was unique. It had profound implications for all other aspects of social existence.

In the years which followed the publication of Beyond A Boundary, James traveled widely through Africa and the Caribbean. His energies became focused on the problems of the newly-independent countries. His analyses drew heavily on the work of Shakespeare and Lenin; and it is not surprising to find them linked in the opening paragraph of his essay, Lenin and The Vanguard Party. If James had made King Lear the basis of his understanding of the question of government (and of the sheer brutality which often surrounded the collapse of the old order), he looked to the work of Lenin for an analysis of the problems of revolutionary transition. Throughout the latter part of his life, James claimed to be actively working on two books: one on Shakespeare and the other on Lenin. He failed, however, to complete either study. 

Much of James’s discussion of the post-colonial order was anchored in his analysis of the Ghana revolution. But his perspective was much broader, for he understood the birth of the new nations as a transformation in world society as a whole. Thus to analyse the rise and fall of Nkrumah was to cast light on the contemporary form of the age-old problem faced by all revolutionary leaders – the problem of government. For James, no one had addressed this more profoundly and concretely than Lenin. 

Against the accumulated record of confusion and distortion surrounding Lenin’s contribution to revolutionary praxis, James re-stated his simple, yet profound, insight into the phase of revolutionary transition. He depended heavily, particularly in his 1964 essay Lenin and The Problem, upon Lenin’s last writings. From these he established the two guiding principles: the abolition of the state and the education of the peasantry; but, as James knew all too well, the new leaders of Africa and the Caribbean had both failed to dismantle the colonial state they had inherited at independence and they had distanced themselves from the popular forces mobilised to create the new society. His early article written for a Caribbean readership, The People of the Gold Coast(1960), and the later series of essays entitled The Rise and Fall of Nkrumah (1966) indicate the shape of his thesis and the development of ideas James had first articulated in The Black Jacobins

James returned to the United States in the late 1960s. He spent more than a decade teaching in various universities and speaking widely on contemporary events. As his speeches on Black Power (1967, 1970) and Black Studies (1969) reveal, it was impossible for him to approach the political explosion of America’s blacks without a developed historical perspective or an understanding of their dynamic connection with other resistance movements worldwide. The world was now one world. Mindful of his own statement on the black question some twenty years before, James recognised the serious threat such a movement posed to the organisation of society as a whole. It was symbolised, above all, in the adoption of the revolutionary slogans of black and Third World movements by people struggling against oppression worldwide. Even in the midst of the 1968 Paris upheavals, the French students drew much of their inspiration from such symbols as Che Guevara, Mao, Castro or the Black Panthers; and revealed, in a critical sense, that Europe’s place as the centre of revolutionary praxis was decisively over. 

Despite the speed of events and the urgency of debate during this period, James remained sensitive to the broader question of the relationship between these intense political struggles and forms of creative expression. His essays on Sobers (1969), Picasso and Jackson Pollock (1980) and Three Black Women Writers (1981) provide the evidence of this continuing interest in the question of democracy and creativity. These pieces are also the reminder of James’s distinctive method of criticism – that is, his focus first and foremost upon the artistic work itself. James always insisted upon the integrity of the artistic vision, setting out to master its constituent elements before seeking to situate work of the creative imagination in society and history. His portrait of the West Indies cricketer, Garfield Sobers, is a good example of the approach. What was implicit here, however, was the theme of his later essay on modern art. 

James interpreted the form and substance of Picasso’s work to be a reflection of the crisis in European civilization, the struggle between humanity and barbarism, between creativity and decay. At its centre was the fragmented human subject amidst war, chaos and destruction. And yet, as James emphasised, in his critical appraisal of Guernica, Picasso had placed contradictory images in close juxtaposition. To him this suggested that Picasso as an artist could not make up his mind about human nature. He recognised at once the capacity for evil and the tremendous creative potential.

For James the first step taken in the artistic resolution to this crisis was by an American painter, Jackson Pollock. Jackson Pollock had started where Picasso finished – with the destruction and fragmentation of the human subject; but within the abstract nature of his work James found the beginnings of reconstruction, the emergence of humanity, of the active, integrated subject. 

Later James saw the black women writers (Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Ntozake Shange) as an integral part, indeed the most advanced manifestation, of this struggle to achieve “an active, integrated humanism” in the modern world. Their work, like Pollock’s, came out of the New World. It represented something new, opening a window on the directions in which modern society was moving. 

During his last years James often reflected upon his life’s course. Although his strength was slowly, almost imperceptibly, slipping away, he could in conversation often startle his visitors with the brilliance of his insight, his grasp of the details of history, the accuracy of his analysis of contemporary events. He remained a revolutionary to the core. As his whole life and work had shown, there was no limit to how far such a philosophy and method could carry him. His vision of humanity, however, was animated by the simple but profound belief in the creative capacities of ordinary men and women. They were the force for civilization.

1. Reviewers at the time, while noting Robeson’s contribution to the play, found Toussaint L’Ouverture rather stilted. Some thirty years later, the playwright Arnold Wesker wrote to James about the revised version of his play, now called The Black Jacobins: “Your canvas is enormous and I was fascinated to read the way you handled it… But there is a spark which is missing from the whole work. Forgive me, but there does seem to be something wooden about the play. The construction is dramatic; the dialogue carries the story and the dialectic of what you want to say, but when all the component parts are put together, it doesn’t work.” (Wesker to James, 16 May 1968). 

2. Letter to Constance Webb, 4 February 1944. 

3. See Discussions with Trotsky (1939), reprinted in At the Rendezvous of Victory (Allison and Busby, 1984). 

4. Notes for an autobiography, see under section VII.in The C.L.R. James Archive: A Reader’s Guide by Anna Grimshaw (C.L.R. James Institute, New York 1991). 

5. Ibid. 

6. Johnson was James’s pseudonym; Forest, the pseudonym of Dunayevskaya. 

7. Letter to Constance Webb, 1945. 

8. For a detailed analysis of this work and the circumstances of its writing, see C.L.R. James and The Struggle for Happiness by Anna Grimshaw and Keith Hart (C.L.R. James Institute, New York 1991). 

9. Mariners, Renegades and Castaways, p.76, Allison and Busby, London 1985. 

10. The intensity of this personal struggle was revealed in James’s letters to Constance Webb in the late 1940s. 

11. The fusion of the particular and the universal, the real and the symbolic, the actual and the potential. See my Popular Democracy and the Creative Imagination: The Writings of C.L.R. James 1950-1963 (C.L.R. James Institute, New York 1991). 

12. James explored the connections between great works of art through an analysis of character. He was particularly interested in those characters which were continuations of a certain general type, e.g. the rebel or the intellectual, and yet revealed the specificities of a particular historical moment. Thus he understood Prometheus, Lear and Ahab, in situating their rebellion against the prevailing order outside society, to be part of a single tradition. But each of these original characters also revealed something new and specific about the age from which they emerged. 

13. Mariners, Renegades and Castaways, p.77, Allison and Busby, London 1985. This was a theory which James borrowed from Melville’s The Confidence Man

14. Letter from James to Frank Kermode, September 1982 (my emphases), see under section III. in The C.L.R. James Archive: A Reader’s Guide

15. To Whom It May Concern, 20 September 1955. See under section II. in The C.L.R. James Archive: A Reader’s Guide


This essay was originally published in booklet form (comprising pp. 9-43) by The C.L.R. James Institute and Cultural Correspondence, New York, in co-operation with Smyrna Press, April 1991. 44 pp. ISBN 0918266-30-0. 
It became the Introduction (pp. 1-22, notes pp. 418-419) to The C.L.R. James Reader, edited by Anna Grimshaw (Oxford, UK; Cambridge, USA: Blackwell, 1992).

Recent posts
Papal Bull of 1455, Romanus Pontifex
This Bull authorised Portugal to raid African Kingdoms, territories and land, capture and enslave the inhabitants and seize their natural and mineral resources, under the authority of the Pope and the Catholic Church.
The Reign of Elizabeth II
A summary of the reign of Elizabeth II and events that took place during her reign