When Cyril Lionel Robert (CLR) James died in May 1989, he was a seemingly marginal and inconsequential figure. His death in a tiny flat in Brixton, south London, appeared symbolic.
Supposedly “socialist” regimes were collapsing all across Eastern Europe. As James was taking his final breath, protests were erupting in Tiananmen Square against the tyranny of Chinese “communism”.
As Christian Hogsbjerg notes in the opening pages of this book, James has gradually been resurrected and is now a fashionable “object of research”. However, much of this scholarship focuses narrowly on his contribution to cultural and postcolonial studies.
Arguably James’ most famous and widely praised publication is Beyond a Boundary, his 1963 book about cricket which one student has described as “undoubtedly James’s definitive work”.
Brilliant though Beyond a Boundary is, Hogsbjerg is determined to highlight James’ other great works, including his magisterial history of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins.
James himself was absolutely unequivocal about his work. He said, “The contributions I have made to the Marxist movement are the things that matter most to me…on the whole, I think of myself as a Marxist who has made serious contributions to Marxism in various fields. I want to be considered one of the most important Marxists.”
Hogsbjerg explodes the myth that James was a privileged dilettante whose main interests were fine clothes, handsome women and trivial sports.
For sure, James was from a middle class background, and cricket did play a pivotal role in setting him on his journey. He arrived in Britain in 1932 at the invitation of his friend Learie Constantine, the great Trinidadian cricketer who wanted somebody to ghostwrite his biography.
Hogsbjerg asserts that the young James “willfully embraced the British educational and cultural ethos” that he learned at Queens Royal College and at home in Trinidad.
By the time he arrived in Britain, however, he had already developed an interest in the struggles of working people. This was expressed, for example, in his early novel Minty Alley.
Following his arrival, it was not long before cricket was relegated behind more serious matters. Though he continued to play and file match reports for the Manchester Guardian and the Glasgow Herald he became increasingly preoccupied by politics.
Hogsbjerg describes how James’s early ideas were refined and developed during his time in Nelson, Lancashire.
The small provincial outpost where Constantine played cricket in the fierce Lancashire League had a rich history of industrial struggle.
As recently as 1928 there had been a titanic struggle against a bosses’ lockout, intended to break the Nelson Weavers Association. The town had become known as “Red Nelson” and was a stronghold of the Independent Labour Party.
James witnessed grinding levels of poverty and unemployment in Nelson. The stories he learned chimed with what he had seen in the sugar fields and dockyards back home in Trinidad.
This helped him to understand something about the common interest of workers.
As his ideas developed, he went from arguing the case for West Indian self-government to a more fully worked out opposition to imperialism and an assertion of the need for world revolution.
James subsequently joined the left wing Independent Labour Party (ILP) and chaired its Finchley branch in north London between 1935 and 1936. He also became an executive member of the League of Coloured Peoples, chair of the International African Friends of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) and an executive member of the International African Service Bureau.
He wrote a prodigious amount while he was in Britain. This included a play about the rebel slave leader Toussaint L’Ouverture which was performed at Westminster Theatre in 1936 with Paul Robeson in the lead role.
His fascination with the great Haitian revolutionary led to the publication of The Black Jacobins in 1938. In the same year he also wrote A History of Negro Revolt.
His broader interest in international socialism led to the publication in 1939 of World Revolution 1917–1936: The Rise and Fall of the Communist International, as well as a translation of Boris Souvarine’s biography of Joseph Stalin.
CLR James became a key ally of Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky and played a critical role in persuading Marxists to engage with the issue of black emancipation.
This impressively researched, well-written and accessible book demonstrates that James’s time in Britain was a period of fertile intellectual growth for this inspirational writer and activist.
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