C.L.R. James: the Revolutionary Life of a "Black Plato"

By Matthieu Renault
Sample translation by Catherine Dop-Miller


Thinking in motion. Thinking motion.

“Time would go by, old empires would fall, and new ones would take their place, relations between countries and between classes would be modified before I discovered that it was not the nature or the usefulness of goods that was important, but motion, not where you are and what you have but where you come from, where you are going and how fast.” These words are carved into the headstone of C.L.R. James, the Caribbean historian and revolutionary who died in London in 1989 and was buried in his native country of Trinidad. They are taken from one of his major works, Beyond a Boundary, and they perfectly summarize the career of a man whose life and thought were intimately linked to the fortunes of the century he lived in, his own lifespan stretching across it. Like many other thinkers born in one of Europe’s colonies, and particularly those born in the Antilles, James was a “diasporic” intellectual, constantly in motion, moving between the center of empire and its margins, navigating the roads that together constitute a Black Atlantic Ocean laden with history, back and forth between its points: the Caribbean, Europe, North America and Africa. Above and beyond his own itinerary, he conceived of life itself as motion, the development of personality as walking on a road. For instance, in a letter to the woman he loved, he said, “Your letter shows that you have reached a fork in the road. Be sure to examine it carefully so you can find out where you are coming from and where you are going.” 

For James, who never ceased interrogating the relationships between personality and society, every individual life must be (re) considered in the light of the “movement of history”. Not only did he study this movement of history but he also strove throughout his life to embrace it wholeheartedly. Born in the British colonial empire, his life was tied to the struggle for self-affirmation on the world stage of colonized peoples from Asia, Africa and the Caribbean, prelude to the fall of the great colonial empires. Although other forms of imperialism and postcolonial hegemony have gradually been replacing these empires, the wave of independence movements beginning after the Second World War gave birth to a radical de-centering that today remains a factor of major political and intellectual importance. Witness the efforts to “provincialize” Europe (Chakrabarty) and/or “de-provincialize” the non-European world. A major figure of Pan-Africanism, James saw the fight against colonialism in Africa and the Antilles as integral to an international movement of “Black revolts”, with another flashpoint located in the United States. Far from having been initiated in the Twentieth century, this movement is rooted in a long history, as old as transatlantic slavery. It was this history that James endeavored to trace in order to draw from it lessons that could serve the struggle of the oppressed “race”.

But James, contrary to many postcolonial theorists, never considered the history of the margins as separate from “world history”, even if that were to amount to a history of the victors that posits the West as the font of all history. His ambition was not to contest “the big story of modernity” but to sever it from its European-colonial matrix and in so doing bring to light the central role played by racialized and colonized subjects in a history that for James should  still be spoken of in the singular. According to him, the struggles for decolonization were a key part of a “world revolution”. In his eyes, this revolution, without which the end of imperialism would remain an empty dream, was obviously the Socialist revolution and self evidently an international revolution. To this he devoted all his efforts, and he never ceased to believe that revolution was both ineluctable and imminent.  From the 1930’s when he first stayed in England to the end of his life James saw himself exclusively as a Marxist thinker and Marxist revolutionary. He was for a time an important figure in the Trotskist movement but later broke away, leaving behind the Fourth International’s legacy and the model of the Party of the Avant-garde in order to support the concept of auto-emancipation of the proletariat and more broadly of the popular masses.  In his view, this break was nothing other than an act of loyalty to the fundamental principles of historical and dialectical materialism.

The reason why it is so important today to analyze James’s trajectory and his thought is that they allow us, in his case probably more than in any other radical Black thinker’s, to reexamine the conflict between Marxist theory and post-colonial critique that has been going on for many years, and to do so without any recourse to compromise solutions such as can be seen in attempts at bringing Marx back into post-colonial studies and/or decoupling Marxism from Euro-centrism. This theoretical challenge is at the same time a pressing political one at a time when the Radical Left, faced with what it wrongly thinks is a totally new problem, is finding it very difficult to (re)define its strategies concerning the demands of minorities (racial, post-colonial or immigrant). These minorities not only want to see their demands integrated into the agenda of anti-capitalist movements, but they also want to speak and to act in their own names and defend their autonomy.

If one thing could summarize James’s thought it would no doubt be the “movement of the masses”. Basing himself on Hegelian dialectic he came to conceive of this movement as “auto-movement” from “the bottom up”: when it flourishes it is always a revolutionary movement. For James, the great revolutionary episodes (the English revolution, the French revolution, the Soviet revolution), when the class struggle reaches its climax, are moments that put history in motion, give it meaning and direction. The struggle for emancipation of the racialized and colonized masses must be written into this “universal” frame, with no remainder. On the other hand, he did not wish these struggles to be in any way subordinated to the struggle of the working class in Western countries. The relationship between the liberation of “oppressed nations” and the Socialist revolution was to be thoroughly re-envisioned. James addressed this task in a profoundly original way. It did not preclude tensions and even contradictions between, on the one hand, a perspective on emancipation that posits the necessary antecedence of revolution in the West, and on the other a (de-centered) concept of independence positing the Black and anti-colonial struggle as an “avant-garde”.

These tensions have often been interpreted as a consequence of the Euro-centrism James – who liked to remind people that he was “Western educated” – could never free himself from, and that his adherence to Marxism could only strengthen. A more elaborate version of this criticism suggests that, notwithstanding his efforts at de-centering, James remained a prisoner of the opposition between modern and pre-modern, in other words of the foundational historicist perspective which posits a binary division between “advanced” (i.e. Western) countries and “backward” (non-Western) countries. For all their merit, the problem with these explanations is that they consider the divisions inherent to James’s oeuvre only negatively, as a result of a persistent “residue” of imperialism that could, a posteriori, be jettisoned without altering the foundations of his theory of emancipation. Other critics for their part insisted that whatever its limitations, James’s thought defined itself from the start as breaking with an “orthodox Marxism” that had been mostly blind to the specificity of colonial oppression and to the particular conditions of the emancipation of people of color. This is in part true but it should not be forgotten that there exists within Marxist theory a body of work exploring the ways in which the Socialist revolution and Marxist theory itself can be “exported” to the non-Western world.  Also and most importantly, James, even though he was always an unorthodox member of revolutionary organizations, saw himself as the most “orthodox” heir to his mentors, Marx and Lenin.

To understand James’s life and work, one must first abandon the premise that his entire effort was to import anti-colonial and anti-racist issues from the outside into a Marxist thought originally confined to the white European world, or vice-versa, to transplant Marxist-Socialist theories onto Pan-African demands and struggles that would otherwise naturally tend toward Black specificity and nationalism. What needs to be done instead is to elucidate the modulations and the variations James practiced within Marxist theory and practice as well as the resistance this de-centering encountered, and the limits it deliberately set itself. James did not strive to “provincialize” Marxism but to “distend” it as much as possible in the hope that the coming revolution would really be a world revolution.

This practice of theoretical displacement stemmed from his conviction that to seize the movement of history and act on it, thought itself should remain in constant motion. According to James, there is an undeniable historicity of knowledge that Marxism – not in spite of the fact that it presents itself as universal or capable of universality but because of it – cannot escape or else it will perish. This fundamental temporality is at the same time a spatial one: it forces us to radically rethink the geography of Marxism, its places of reference, the spaces within which it is applied and/or adapted, the modalities of its translation inside contexts foreign to those that witnessed its birth. This is the reason why James constantly sought to establish connections between space-times that were sometimes poles apart – between prerevolutionary Russia and Black America, between the Caribbean and Ancient Greece. This also implied a renewed questioning of the meaning of “backwardness” and the historicist projections according to which the history of mankind can be read synchronically on a map of the world. Lastly, this implied redefining the coordinates and reimagining the future of what James did not hesitate to call, always in the singular, “world civilization”.

It would still not be possible to give an account of the way James met this colossal challenge without being aware that his political and historiographic thinking and practice are intimately intertwined with an aesthetic and a theory of culture as sophisticated as those of the representatives of “Western Marxism” (Benjamin, Adorno, Gramsci, etc.). As a young man, James, who was steeped in British literature during his childhood in Trinidad, wanted to become a writer, and he penned several short stories and a novel. He had a lifelong interest in literary criticism. He was a passionate reader and critic of Herman Melville, and wrote a study of the author. He admired Shakespeare, and reflected on the meaning of tragedy: this in turn informed the way he thought about history. He also authored a history play on the Haitian revolution. In the United States he was passionately interested in popular culture, first and foremost the cinema, since to him it showed that the masses were stepping on to the stage of history. Similarly, African-American literature in his eyes carried the deepest aspirations of the Black masses and their revolutionary potential.

James did not hesitate to link the process of literary creation and the revolutionary process: to him they sprang from the same deep yearning. Witness the striking musical metaphor he felt inspired to use about Lenin: “I always thought that a really great revolutionary is a great artist, and that he develops ideas, programs, etc. just as Beethoven develops a musical movement.” Last but not least, James was from early in his childhood to the end of his life an analyst in the strictest sense of the word of the sport that symbolizes British imperialism: cricket. In his eyes, the playing field was a mirror for the great existential (social, racial and political) conflicts both on the national-regional stage (the Caribbean and Britain) and on the international (post)imperial stage. He also thought that because cricket summons a powerful aesthetic image of motion in the spectators’ minds, it should be considered an art form in its own right. 

Why a biography?

This book will tackle the themes and the questions mentioned above by means of an intellectual biography. In a previous book on Frantz Fanon – the present study is both a continuation and a displacement of its focus – the challenge was to write a non-biography. The problem was that in Francophone countries, the growing number of books focusing on Fanon’s life, however instructive, ran the risk of obscuring the irreducible originality and radicalism of his thought and its meaning for our times. The point then was to posit as a hypothesis the autonomy of his thought, independent from the personal destiny of the author without making it purely independent from his subjectivity.  In the present study on the contrary, there are three main reasons for taking the “biographical leap”.

The first reason is that in France James remains unknown. His name when it is known stands at best for a (not very) “famous” play about the Haitian revolution, The Black Jacobins. As for his life and political trajectory, the French speaking reader who might be interested in these questions knows just as little and probably less. This lack of knowledge doesn’t only affect James: it continues in varying degrees to be the case for all English speaking Caribbean thinkers, and this at a time when the French speaking writers of the Caribbean, with whom they have many affinities, are beginning to receive the attention they deserve.    

The second reason is that is it is important to analyze the material, individual and collective conditions of production of political works, not only in order to contextualize the ideas they put forth, but also to understand the purely theoretical logic that animates them.  Analyzing James’s thinking presupposes writing a biography of his work. Such is the goal of the present book, with the added idea that the meaning of the work throws light on the meaning of the life and vice-versa. James himself wrote the very same thing in regard to his study of Melville: “Pure biography in his case can be deceptive. […] I don’t read these letters and his life to understand his books. Rather, I read his books to understand his letters and his life.”

The third and most important reason lies in the centrality of biographical, even autobiographical writing in James’s oeuvre. Even as he praised the autonomous revolutionary activity of the “anonymous” masses, James, heir to a long tradition, never ceased to study the role individuals play in history. He found recounting the lives of “great men” to be a privileged way of writing history. To him, history finds itself refracted in the often tragic destiny of exceptional individuals who in that regard are not unlike the great heroes of literature. This is the perspective guiding James’s efforts to retrace his personal story in autobiographical fragments and notes disseminated throughout his work. He continually sought to situate himself in history, not only in his own present times, but also in the past as it survived in him and prepared the future. James experienced the intertwining of several historical times in very personal ways, making his narrative practice literally untimely. A biography of James must also be a geo-biography tracing the relationships between physically moving, circulating in his life and the intellectual transitions or breaks in his thinking. The structure of the present book will follow the rhythm of James’s successive migrations, each representing a new threshold in the genesis of his thought.

Still, could there not be some ambiguity in writing the intellectual biography of a man who, taking the Marxist critique of the division between intellectual and manual work to its extremes, was one of the most virulent critics of the intellectual caste in the Marxist tradition of the Twentieth century.  This ambiguity is in a sense redoubled by the subtitle of the present book: it is taken from the London Times where, in 1980, James was dubbed “The black Plato of our generation”. For James, Plato was the perfect archetype of the intellectual “type of man” whose speculations on the ideal form of government are invariably founded on the premise that “ordinary man” is incapable of governing/governing himself. Also, this type of designation where praise is implied in the comparison threatens to reproduce the (colonial) idea according to which colonial subjects are condemned to conform to the model of their white “elders”. Because of this, they will always lag behind the model, and cannot in fact hope for anything better than to be “color copies” of the best the West has produced. The point is that these comparisons, taken at face value, make it impossible to understand the gesture of disconnection that characterizes, in varying degrees, the work of the great non-European theoreticians of decolonization.

However, anyone considering his multifaceted oeuvre today will find that James is best described as a total intellectual. His critique of intellectuals, however sharp, still masks another representation with which he identified, that of the intellectual who should in his view also be an artist.  By this he meant someone in whom the pure expression of individuality and the manifestation of the deepest social and political currents are one and the same thing. Also James, having restored the colonized-racialized masses that had been systematically excluded from European narratives to their rank as subjects of history, was nonetheless convinced that his thought fit entirely within a Western genealogy represented by the classic figures of an intellectual and political tradition (Aristotle, Rousseau, Hegel, Marx, etc.) going back to Ancient Greece, and inside which he felt at home. This ambivalence must be a starting point or it would be impossible to grasp the torsions to which James subjected European historiography and theory of revolution. And so the words “Black Plato” should not be understood as naming a person but as designating a problem, even a paradox.

In order to retrace James’s intellectual itinerary, one must rely mainly on his body of work, more than fifteen books, and many collected articles plus the uncollected notes and articles that appeared in various revolutionary publications of his time. Specific attention will be given to his autobiographical sketches and notes, not by default, for lack of some more “objective” source, but as a working method, because it is essential to integrate into the biography the way in which James narrated and in many regards reinvented his revolutionary trajectory. Lastly, the present book could not have been written without the work of those writers in the English speaking world who endeavored to retrace in whole or in part James’s itinerary using primary sources that are difficult to access (in particular Kent Worcester, Paul Buhle, Christian Høgsbjerg and Frank Rosengarten). Still this study’s claim to originality lies in the questioning that runs through it: what are the connections and differences between revolution “at the center” and anti-colonial and anti-racial struggles “at the margins”, between the history of Europe and the history of the non-European world as they are reflected in James’s life and in his thought. Together with this, the underlying question is what conditions would allow a de-westernizing of critical-revolutionary theories to be truly synonymous, and this is by no means self-evident, with a deepening of their radical potential, and let us dare say it, of their truth itself.

Nevertheless, the present study does not aim to be more than an introduction to James’s life and works. Because of the vast amount of territory covered by his writings many aspects will receive less attention than they deserve. Also, it will not always be possible to take fully into account the historical and political complexity of the situations in which James sought to play a role. But the challenge this book also sets itself is to contribute to the renewal of the critique of Euro-centrism: if, on the one hand this critique is needed more than ever precisely because of the resistance that continues to meet any questioning of the (Western, of course) “universal”, on the other it must today test its own limitations and identify the stumbling blocks that until now have been woven into its development. Only on this condition will it demonstrate that it is truly indispensable for the genesis of a theory of emancipation that will, finally, encompass the world.        



Sharing a legacy

In 1980, James spent several months in San Fernando, Trinidad. He had been invited by the Oilfield Workers’ Trade Union. Otherwise, James spent the last years of his life in England, at the heart of the former empire. Even though his health was declining, he remained active and regularly took part in television and radio broadcasts. In 1983, an exchange between James and E.P. Thompson, then head of the anti-nuclear protest movement, was broadcast on British television. In 1986, his play The Black Jacobins, was revived on the London stage. During those years, James received many awards to which he was mostly indifferent. He became Doctor honoris causa of the University of the West Indies in 1983. Two years later, a library in the London district of Hackney was named after him; in 1988, he was awarded the Trinity Cross, the highest distinction in Trinidad. Whenever the phone rang, James liked to tell Anna Grimshaw who assisted him during the last six years of his life, “Whoever it is, tell them I’m dead.” Anna Grimshaw would later play a key editorial role.

In the early eighties, James was still writing about his favorite subjects: cricket, art, and of course politics. In 1981, after young people, black and white, had rioted in Moss Side, in Manchester, he wrote, “That, my friends, is revolution. No highly educated party guiding the backward masses. No eminent leader the masses should follow because of his previous feats of arms. No pre-established plan.” A few weeks later, he gave a speech at a meeting in support of the Polish Solidarnosc movement: it was, he said, “the last stage” in a history that started with the Paris Commune. On the occasion of the publication of that speech, he gave an interview where he declared, “There is Solidarnosc, the working class and the farmers, united to create a new society. So, tell me, is Socialism any different? […] Solidarnosc has abolished the contradiction between politics and power, between factory and community.” James also took an interest in new African-American writers, particularly three “Black women writers” whom he helped introduce to the British public: Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Ntozake Shange. The fact that they wrote about “Black women’s everyday life” was proof that “Blacks […] are taking part in the women’s liberation movement.”

After 1984, James no longer took part in any public activity. He was getting weaker, and spent most of his time in his small apartment on Railton Road in Brixton, south of London. The address itself is significant: the population of Brixton was majority Afro-Caribbean, the building where James lived was also the headquarters of Race Today, the magazine edited by his compatriot Darcus Howe. And lastly, almost like a symbol of his personality, the apartment was located at the corner of Shakespeare Road. The people who visited James in the nineteen-eighties all noted that the television was constantly on. James always enjoyed popular culture and, losing nothing of his analytical acumen, watched old films, variety shows, television series in which he saw “late capitalist psychoses” playing out, and of course, cricket matches. That did not keep him from welcoming young Caribbean radical activists and members of the Caribbean diaspora – among them Stuart Hall, with whom he taped a long interview broadcast on Channel Four in 1984. They came to drink at the fount of his experience and hear his teachings. James died in 1989 of pulmonary infection. He was buried in Tunapuna, Trinidad, where he had spent his childhood.

In the English-speaking world, James had gained public recognition in the early 1980s with the publication of three collections of essays, The Future in the Present (1977), Spheres of Existence (1980) and At the Rendezvous of Victory (1984) together with an anthology of his writings on cricket (1986). But it was only after his death that he came to be recognized as a major intellectual figure of the twentieth century. Under the impulse of Anna Grimshaw, a James Reader came out in 1992, followed by the manuscript of American Civilization (1993) and his correspondence with Constance Webb (1996). Other collections of his essays on the Black Question and Marxist theory were published in the same period. In the past twenty-five years, many of his books have been republished and several biographies, a number of essays and collective works have come out. This rich publication history – without which we could not have brought the present study to fruition – has no equivalent in France. Still, there is now budding interest in James’ work.

James’ oeuvre has been appropriated in as many different ways as his own writings are diverse. Still, the field of James Studies is divided into two distinct schools claiming his inheritance: the first one is tied to Marxist theory, the second to Cultural Studies and Post-colonial Studies. The Marxist side stresses James’s revolutionary radicalism as a theorist of worldwide class struggle. The “cultural postcolonial” side lays emphasis on James’s efforts (including their limitations) at decentering, showing that he was already in tune with the politics of cultural and historical difference. This split points to a larger conflict which has been ongoing for a quarter century. It demonstrates the need to look for answers to the following questions: in what measure and in what form is the critique of Euro-centrism (it should be agreed that that critique is not an end in itself) a necessary element of the struggles for emancipation in the West and in the global South?

James’s work opens up many roads of inquiry into this problem. There are others, of course, and it would be dangerous to think that it could be solved in just one way. James always perceived the forms of oppression as heterogeneous. As a consequence, the modes of emancipation should be just as varied: that should not obscure the fact they are necessarily connected in a world that is unified, in its differences, by a universal capital, in other words by imperialism itself. He refused to think that these differences might result from different modes of actualization of an “abstract” Capitalism; nor are the diverse modes of resistance against it part of a universal logic of emancipation. Instead, James developed what we would call a topic of translation of these struggles, focusing on the places and spaces where these revolutionary practices are deployed, where a knowhow of emancipation is forged, and as a consequence focusing on the modalities of their export, their circulation and their constant reconfiguration.

This is the reason why James strove to subvert rather than deny the Eurocentric division, first and foremost the dichotomy between “backward” and “advanced” or “avant-garde”. A good dialectician, he acknowledged there was some truth to these categories after all for the simple reason that Capitalism/Imperialism did have a center: Europe. From that center Capitalism had spread as it created real hierarchies and real economic, social and political subordination. The imperial powers did not only impose a view of history that could simply be jettisoned by casting off the mental shackles inherited from colonialism. Historicism, a teleological view of history invariably positing that non-European societies are “latecomers” and thus fated to repeat the same stages of development as European societies before them, is not a purely intellectual construct: it is the product of centuries of domination that have used and continue to use this backwardness to enable worldwide capitalist accumulation. In other words, imperialism has never ceased creating, over centuries, the material conditions that validate this historicism. This view of history can only be invalidated by the struggles for emancipation in Europe and outside of Europe on condition that they are not limited to the (necessary) goal of recovering national independence.

On this basis then, James’s strategy was not to posit the irreducibility of histories and forms of historicity in the West to those outside the West, but to confront this conception on its own turf, that of World History, dismantling the identification of World History with the history of Europe/the West and bringing to light the multiplicity of agents and places of revolutionary initiative, past and present. In practical terms, this consisted in explicating the role Pan-African struggles had played – and here I use one of James’s favorite rhetorical tropes – not only in the history of black populations, but also in the history of world civilization as a whole.   

Throughout his life as an intellectual and a revolutionary, James’s goal was nothing less than to recast the philosophy of history on the basis of historical and dialectical materialism. His work deserves to be scrutinized, especially today, since the non-Eurocentric schools of historiography that have emerged in the last thirty years (post-colonial history, global history, connected history, etc.) are all founded on a similar rejection of the suspect notion of a philosophy/theory of history which they see as inevitably teleological, with no regard for historical differences and based on a conception of time as empty and homogeneous.  James’s place is rightfully in the company of Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch and a few others who have produced heterodox philosophies of historical time. For that reason, it would be important to establish, a posteriori, the dialogue that never took place between Western Marxism (Gramsci, Benjamin, Bloch, Althusser, etc.) itself still awaiting a decentering, and the diverse iterations of anti-colonial Marxism – not to be subsumed in the Stalinist regimes of Asia and Africa – together with what remains truly vital in orthodox Marxism. What James is calling on us to do is to work toward a global materialism