During a recent panel at Revolution Book store in Harlem, the subject of revolution dominated the discussion. One participant stood and said his perception of revolution was that it was bloody, echoing Malcolm X. Two panelists, to a certain extent, agreed that there may come a time when it will be bloody. “However, we are not at that stage,” one of them stated. With the very thought of revolution, the one waged in Haiti comes to mind. Here is what C.L.R. James wrote in the prologue of his book, “The Black Jacobins—Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution”:
“The transformation of slaves, trembling in hundreds before a single white man, into a people able to organize themselves and defeat the most powerful European nations of their day, is one of the great epics of revolutionary struggle and achievement.”
James’ analysis of the Haitian Revolution is one of the most remarkable books of his and our times, and there is a need to revisit it from time to time, particularly in this age of turbulence. But what of the author? Who was he and what accumulative forces, what circumstances of life, forged such a brilliant mind?
At the close of his book, there is a brief profile of him, far too brief to give us a full understanding of his place in the pantheon of revolutionary thinkers. Even so, it’s a beginning.
James—the initials stand for Cyril Lionel Robert—was born Jan. 4, 1901, in Tunapuna, Trinidad. He was 17 when he was certified as a teacher at Queen’s Royal College in Port of Spain, the island nation’s capital. In 1932, he moved to England, where he published “The Life of Captain Cipriani,” thanks to the financial support of a star West Indian cricket player. During this period, James established himself as a noted journalist on cricket for The Guardian newspaper in Manchester. None of this work was done in absence of his political activism, especially his reunion with George Padmore (Malcolm Nurse), also a native of Trinidad, and their membership in the pan-African organization, International African Friends of Abyssinia, which by 1938 would be renamed the International African Service Bureau.
Later this expertise on cricket would be a metaphor in his book, “Beyond a Boundary,” in which he traced the British character to the sport as he laid out, in a Marxian analysis, the history of the Caribbean. A prolific writer almost from the beginning of his literary career, he wrote a play based on the life of Toussaint L’Ouverture in 1936, featuring Paul Robeson in the lead role. His first novel of import was “Minty Alley,” which was thinly autobiographical and based on his coming of age in Tunapuna.
Besides his relentless involvement in cultural affairs and cricket, James was active on the political front, most notably with Socialists formations. In 1938, the Socialist Workers Party sponsored James on a tour of the U.S. He also visited Mexico, where he met with Leon Trotsky. They differed on the role of Black workers in the struggle for self-determination and liberation.
It was in 1938 with the publication of “The Black Jacobins” that James acquired acclaim, assuring a lifetime of admiration and respect as a preeminent scholar. A year after the book’s appearance to good notices, he left England for America. But his radical politics were unacceptable and he was arrested and detained at Ellis Island in New York City by the Department of Immigration. This detention was an opportunity James used to write a totally engaging analysis of Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick,” entitled “Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways.”
“The Island, like Melville’s Pequod [the name of the ship in the novel], is a miniature of all the nations of the world,” James wrote, “and all sections of society.” As James dissects Moby Dick, the Pequod, in effect, is a floating factory, and the crew workers at the point of production as they comply with Ahab’s authority in his obsessed quest after the great white whale. For four months in 1952 James was detained, and it is rather baffling why the government waited so long to deport him after he had lived in the states since 1938.
After breaking with the Socialist Workers Party, James formed the Workers Party within which was conceived the Johnson-Forest Tendency with Raya Dunayeveskaya. Johnson and Forest were James’ and Dunayeveskaya’s nom de guerres, respectively. Grace Lee, later Grace Lee Boggs, was also an affiliate in the group. The focus soon was less the views promulgated by Trotsky and more their own perspective on the role of minorities in the movement for liberation.
By 1949, the faction was clearly independent and again renamed itself the Correspondence Publishing Committee. The nature of the split has been often debated, but there is insubstantial information about which element of the split constituted a majority.
It was a moot question, because a few years later there was another rupture, out of which a partnership was forged between Grace Lee and James Boggs, later her husband. Wayne State University scholar and activist Martin Glaberman headed the James faction under the name of Facing Reality, and it lasted until 1970.
Meanwhile, James, nominally leading the Glaberman group from abroad, resumed his strong ties to the African liberation movements, particularly in Ghana, where he had begun a working relationship with the nation’s president, Kwame Nkrumah. By 1968, he was back in the U.S. with a teaching post at University of the District of Columbia.
Back in London in the 1980s, James would spend the remainder of his life in the Brixton community. In 1980, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from South Bank Polytechnic, later to become the University of the South Bank, for his voluminous body of literary work on politics and sports.
Among his several marriages, Constance Webb, a model and author, and Selma Weinstein, who was with him during his stay in the states, have been the most discussed and written about. In his last years, he had a productive companionship with Anna Grimshaw, who edited a volume of his writing.
James, 88, died May 19, 1989, and his funeral took place in Trinidad. A state memorial was held before his burial in his hometown of Tunapuna.