C. L. R. James

C. L. R. James
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Cyril Lionel Robert James (4 January 1901 – 19 May 1989), who sometimes wrote under the pen-name J.R. Johnson, was an Afro-Trinidadian historian, journalist, socialist theorist and essayist. His works are influential in various theoretical, social, and historiographical contexts. His work is a staple of subaltern studies, and he figures as a pioneering and influential voice in postcolonial literature.[1] His work is often associated with Caribbean and Afro-nationalism, though James himself contended that the "either-or" was a false dichotomy, and that Caribbean peoples were indebted to European as much as African cultural traditions.[2] A tireless political activist, James's writing on the Communist International stirred debate in Trotskyist circles, and his history of the Haitian slave uprising, The Black Jacobins, is a seminal text in the literature of the African Diaspora.[3]

Characterized by one literary critic as an "anti-Stalinist dialectician",[4] James was known for his autodidactic facility, for his occasional playwriting and acting, and as an avid sportsman. He is also famed as a writer on cricket.[5]



Early life

Born in Trinidad and Tobago, then a British Crown colony, James attended Queen's Royal College, a high school in Port of Spain. He later worked as a schoolteacher, teaching among others the young Eric Williams, who later became the first Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago. Together with Ralph de Boissière, Albert Gomes and Alfred Mendes, James was a member of the anti-colonialist 'Beacon Group', a circle of writers associated with The Beacon magazine.

In 1932, he moved to Nelson in Lancashire, England, to take up work as a biographer for his friend, West Indian cricketer Learie Constantine. While helping Constantine write his autobiography, he took a job with the Manchester Guardian,.

London years

In 1933 James left his home in the small town of Nelson, and moved to London. James had begun to campaign for the independence of the West Indies while in Trinidad, and his Life of Captain Cipriani and the pamphlet The Case for West-Indian Self Government were his first important published works. He became a champion of Pan-Africanism, and was named Chair of the International African Friends of Abyssinia, a group formed in 1935 in response to the Italian fascist invasion of Ethiopia (Second Italo-Abyssinian War).

James became a leading figure in the International African Service Bureau, led by his childhood friend George Padmore, to whom he later introduced Kwame Nkrumah. In Britain, he also became a leading Marxist theorist. He had joined the Labour Party but turned to Trotskyism during the Great Depression. By 1934, James was a member of an entrist Trotskyist group inside the Independent Labour Party.

In this period, amid his frenetic political activity, James wrote a play about Toussaint L'Ouverture, which was staged in the West End in 1936 and starred Paul Robeson and Robert Adams. That same year saw the publication in London of James's only novel, Minty Alley, which he had brought with him in manuscript from Trinidad. It was the first novel to be published by a black Caribbean author in the UK.

He also wrote what are perhaps his best-known works of non-fiction: World Revolution (1937), a history of the rise and fall of the Communist International, which was critically praised by Leon Trotsky; and The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (1938), a widely acclaimed history of the Haitian Revolution, which would later be seen as a seminal text in the study of the African diaspora.

In 1936, James and his Trotskyist Marxist Group left the Independent Labour Party to form an open party. In 1938, this new group took part in several mergers to form the Revolutionary Socialist League. The RSL was a highly factionalised organisation. When James was invited to tour the United States by the leadership of the Socialist Workers' Party, then the US section of the Fourth International, to facilitate its work among black workers, John Archer encouraged him to leave in the hope of removing a rival.[citation needed]

US career and the Johnson-Forest Tendency

James travelled to the USA in late 1938, and after a tour sponsored by the SWP, he stayed on for over twenty years. By 1940 he had begun to doubt Trotsky's view of the Soviet Union as a degenerated workers state. He left the SWP along with Max Shachtman, who formed the Workers' Party. Within the WP, James formed the Johnson-Forest Tendency with Raya Dunayevskaya (his pseudonym was Johnson and Dunayevskaya's was Forest) and Grace Lee (later Grace Lee Boggs) to spread their views within the new party.

While within the WP, the views of the J-F tendency underwent considerable development. By the end of the Second World War, they had definitively rejected Trotsky's theory of Russia as a degenerated workers state. Instead they classified it as state capitalist. This political evolution was shared by other Trotskyists of their generation, most notably Tony Cliff. Unlike Cliff, the Johnson-Forest Tendency was focusing increasingly on the liberation movements of oppressed minorities, a theoretical development already visible in James' thought in his 1939 discussions with Trotsky. Such liberation struggles came to take centre stage for the J-F Tendency.

After World War II, the WP witnessed a downturn in revolutionary sentiment. The J-F Tendency, on the other hand, was encouraged by the prospects for revolutionary change for oppressed peoples. After a few short months as an independent group, during which time they published a great deal of material, in 1947 the J-F tendency joined the SWP, which it regarded as more proletarian than the WP.

James would still describe himself as a Leninist, despite his rejection of Lenin's conception of the vanguard role of the revolutionary party. He argued for socialists to support the emerging black nationalist movements. By 1949, James rejected the idea of a vanguard party. This led the J-F tendency to leave the Trotskyist movement and rename itself the Correspondence Publishing Committee.

In 1955, about half the membership of the Committee left, under the leadership of Raya Dunayevskaya, to form a separate tendency of Marxist-humanism and found the organization News and Letters Committees. Whether Dunayevskaya's faction had constituted a majority or a minority in the Correspondence Publishing Committee remains a matter of dispute. Historian Kent Worcester claims that Dunayevskaya's supporters formed a majority, but Martin Glaberman claims in New Politics that the faction loyal to James had a majority.[citation needed]

The Committee split again in 1962, as Grace Lee Boggs and James Boggs, two key activists, left to pursue a more Third Worldist approach. The remaining Johnsonites, including leading member Martin Glaberman, reconstituted themselves as Facing Reality. James advised the group from Great Britain until it dissolved in 1970, against his urging.[citation needed]

James's writings were also influential in the development of Autonomist Marxism as a current within Marxist thought. He himself saw his life's work as developing the theory and practice of Leninism.[citation needed]

Return to Trinidad and final years

In 1953, James was forced to leave the US under threat of deportation for having overstayed his visa by over ten years.[citation needed] In his attempt to remain in the USA, James wrote a study of Herman Melville, Mariners, Renegades and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In, and had copies of the privately-published work sent to every member of the Senate. He wrote the book while being detained on Ellis Island.

James returned to England. In 1958 he returned to Trinidad, where he edited The Nation newspaper for the pro-independence People's National Movement (PNM) party. He also became active again in the Pan-African movement. He believed that the Ghana revolution greatly encouraged anti-colonialist revolutionary struggle.

James also advocated the West Indies Federation. It was over this issue that he fell out with the PNM leadership. He returned to Great Britain. In 1968 he was invited to the USA, where he taught at the University of the District of Columbia.

Ultimately, he returned to Britain and spent his last years in Brixton, London where, in the 1980s, he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from South Bank Polytechnic (later to become University of the South Bank, in London) for his body of socio-political work including that relating to race and sport.

Personal life

His second wife was Constance Webb (1918-2005), an American model, actress and author. James was her third husband, and they married in 1946.


  • In the 1970s and 1980s, a number of books by James were republished or reissued by Allison and Busby, including four volumes of selected writings: The Future In the Present, Spheres of Existence, At the Rendezvous of Victory, and Cricket.
  • In 1983, a short British film featuring James in dialogue with the historian E. P. Thompson was made.
  • The C.L.R. James Institute was founded with James's blessing by Jim Murray in 1983. Based in New York, and affiliated to the Centre for African Studies at Cambridge University, it has been run by Ralph Dumain since Murray's death in 2003.[6]
  • A public library in the London Borough of Hackney was named in his honor in 1985, when James attended the library’s naming ceremony,[7] and his widow, Selma James, attended a reception there to mark its 20th anniversary in 2005. Hackney Council had intended to drop the name when the library moved to a new development in Dalston Square in the spring of 2011, but after protests from Selma James and local and international campaigners, the council has promised that James’ name will be retained in the name of the library. A council statement said that in addition to this, “As part of the new library, there will be a permanent exhibition to chronicle his life and works and an annual event in his memory, and we are pleased to report the state-of-the-art education room will also be named after this influential figure.” [8][9]
  • The Brixton Pound, a currency in use in Brixton only and created in an effort to keep money local and support local and independent traders, has a picture of C.L.R. James on the ten pound note.

Writings on cricket

C. L. R. James is widely known as a writer on cricket, especially for his autobiographical 1963 book, Beyond a Boundary. This is considered the seminal work on the game, and is often named as the best single book on cricket (or even the best book on any sport) ever written.[10]

The book's key question, frequently quoted by modern journalists and essayists, is inspired by Rudyard Kipling and asks: What do they know of cricket who only cricket know? James uses this challenge as the basis for describing cricket in an historical and social context, the strong influence cricket had on his life, and how it meshed with his role in politics and his understanding of issues of class and race. The literary quality of the writing attracts cricketers of all political views.

While editor of The Nation, he led the successful campaign in 1960 to have Frank Worrell appointed the first black captain of the West Indies cricket team. James believed that the relationship between players and the public was a prominent reason behind the West Indies' achieving so much with so little.

Select Bibliography

  • Letters from London (series of essays written in 1932) Signal Books (2003).
  • The Life of Captain Cipriani: An Account of British Government in the West Indies. Nelson, Lancs.: Cartmel & Co. (1932).
  • The Case for West-Indian Self-Government. London: Hogarth Press (1933). Reprinted, New York: University Place Bookshop (1967); Detroit: Facing Reality Publishing Co. (1967)
  • Minty Alley. London: Secker & Warburg (1936). New edition, London & Port of Spain: New Beacon Books (1971).
  • Toussaint L'Ouverture (play). Produced by Peter Godfrey at the Westminster Theatre, London (1936).
  • World Revolution 1917-1936: The Rise and Fall of the Communist International. London: Secker & Warburg (1937).
  • A History of Negro Revolt. Fact monograph no. 18, London (1938). Revised as A History of Pan-African Revolt. Washington: Drum and Spear Press (1969).
  • The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. London: Secker & Warburg (1938). Revised edition, New York: Vintage Books/Random House (1963). ISBN 0-679-72467-2. Index starts at page 419. Library of Congress Card Number: 63-15043. New British edition with Foreword, London: Allison & Busby (1980).
  • Why Negroes should oppose the war (as "J. R. Johnson") New York: Pioneer Publishers for the Socialist Workers Party and the Young People's Socialist League (Fourth International (1939).
  • My friends: a fireside chat on the war (as "Native Son") New York: Workers Party (1940).
  • The Invading Socialist Society (with F. Forest and Ria Stone). New York: Johnson Forest Tendency (1947). Reprinted with new preface, Detroit: Bewick Editions (1972).
  • Notes on Dialectics: Hegel, Marx and Lenin (Link only goes to the last half of Part 2 from the 1980 edition) (1948). New edition with Introduction, London: Allison & Busby; Westport, Conn.: Lawrence Hill (1980).
  • Notes on American Civilisation. Typescript [1950], Published as American Civilization, Oxford: Blackwell (1992).
  • State Capitalism and World Revolution (1950). New edition with foreword by James and introduction by Paul Buhle, Chicago: Charles H. Kerr (1986).
  • Mariners, Renegades and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In. New York; privately printed (1953). Reprinted, London: Allison & Busby (1984).
  • Facing Reality (with Cornelius Castoriadis and Grace Lee Boggs) Detroit: Correspondence (1958).
  • Modern Politics (A series of lectures on the subject given at the Trinidad Public library, in its Adult Education Programme). Port of Spain: PNM Publishing Co.(1960).
  • A convention appraisal: Dr. Eric Williams: first premier of Trinidad & Tobago: a biographical sketch. Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, W.I.: PNM Publishing Co. (1960).
  • Party Politics in the West Indies. San Juan, Port of Spain: Vedic Enterprises (1962).
  • Marxism and the intellectuals Detroit, Facing Reality Publishing Committee (1962).
  • Beyond a Boundary. London: Stanley Paul/Hutchinson (1963). New edition, New York: Pantheon (1984).
  • Kas-kas; interviews with three Caribbean writers in Texas. George Lamming, C. L. R. James [and] Wilson Harris. Austin, African and Afro-American Research Institute, University of Texas at Austin (1972).
  • Not for sale (with Michael Manley). San Francisco: Editorial Consultants (1976).
  • Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution. London: Allison and Busby; Westport, Conn.: L. Hill (1977).
  • The Future in the Present, Selected Writings, vol. 1. London: Allison and Busby; Westport, Conn.: L. Hill (1977).
  • Spheres of Existence, Selected Writings, vol. 2. London: Allison and Busby; Westport, Conn.: L. Hill (1980).
  • 80th Birthday Lectures. London: Race Today Publications (1983).
  • At the Rendezvous of Victory, Selected Writings, vol. 3. London: Allison & Busby (1984).
  • Cricket (selected writings, ed. Anna Grimshaw). London: Allison & Busby; distributed in the USA by Schocken Books (1986).


  • Bogues, Anthony, The Early Political Thought of C. L. R. James, 1997.
  • Buhle, Paul, C. L. R. James. The Artist as Revolutionary, 1989.
  • Buhle, Paul (ed.), C. L. R. James: His Life and Work, 1986.
  • Glaberman, Martin, "C. L. R. James: A Recollection", New Politics #8 (Winter 1990), pp. 78–84.
  • Glaberman, Martin, Marxism for our Times: C. L. R. James on Revolutionary Organisation.
  • McClendon III, John H., C. L. R. James's Notes on Dialectics: Left Hegelianism or Marxism-Leninism?, 2004.
  • McLemee, Scott & Paul LeBlanc (eds), C. L. R. James and Revolutionary Marxism: Selected Writings of C. L. R. James 1939-1949, 1994.
  • Renton, David, C.L.R. James; Cricket's Philosopher King, 2008.
  • Rosengarten, Frank (2007). Urbane Revolutionary: C. L. R. James and the Struggle for a New Society. University Press of Mississippi. ISBN 8772890967. 
  • Webb, Constance, Not Without Love, 2003.
  • Worcester, Kent, C. L. R. James. A Political Biography'. 1996.
  • Young, James D., The World of C. L. R. James. The Unfragmented Vision, 1999.

External links


  1. ^ Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. page 54
  2. ^ Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. page 247-8
  3. ^ Segal, Ronald. The Black Diaspora. 1996, page 275
  4. ^ Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. page 253
  5. ^ Rosengarten: Urbane Revolutionary, p. 134.
  6. ^ The C.L.R. James Institute
  7. ^ CLR James Library
  8. ^ Black Hero Dropped by Hackney
  9. ^ Hackney Council signals U-turn in CLR James library row
  10. ^ Rosengarten: Urbane Revolutionary, p. 134.

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