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Cyril Lionel Robert James was born and raised in Trinidad but spent most of his adult life in Britain and the United States. A gifted essayist and speaker, he wrote with great insight on Shakespeare, Melville, Hegel, Athenian democracy, slavery, the Soviet Union, black nationalism, calypso, and cricket. His novel Minty Alley (1936) signaled the emergence of a West Indian literary voice, while Beyond a Boundary (1963) fused autobiography, sports history, and area studies. He penned a critical study of Soviet foreign policy, World Revolution 1917–1936: The Rise and Fall of the Communist International (1937), followed by The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (1938), which brought a comparative perspective to the study of the French and Haitian revolutions. James explored U.S. culture and history in American Civilization (1950), and lauded a major novelist in Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways: Herman Melville and the World We Live In (1953). In Modern Politics (1960), he applied Enlightenment ideals to West Indian conditions, while Party Politics in the West Indies (1962) leveled a blistering critique of Trinidad’s independence movement. James wrote on West Africa in Kwame Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution (1977). In his final years, he oversaw the publication of three volumes of selected writings, a single-volume reader, and a collection of essays on cricket. In 1988 he was awarded the Trinity Cross, Trinidad and Tobago’s highest national honor.
C. L. R. James embraced Marxism in the mid-1930s, while living in England. He threw himself into political activity and was widely known on the Left for his simultaneous advocacy of socialism and Pan-Africanism. Prior to leaving for the United States in 1938, James edited a Trotskyist newspaper, Fight, and the journal of the International African Service Bureau, International African Opinion. In the United States in the 1940s he collaborated with a small circle of co-thinkers, the JohnsonForest Tendency, which staked out an independent radical praxis that characterized the Soviet Union as “state capitalist” and emphasized the creative role of blacks, women, young people, and workers in the making of a “new society.” (“Johnson” was the “party name” for C. L. R. James, while “Forest” was Raya Dunayevskaya, a Russian-born intellectual.) The group produced boldly argued texts on topics ranging from the 1956 Hungarian uprising to Marx’s early writings. While the tendency never numbered more than one hundred members, its ideas prefigured certain New Left positions of the 1960s and 1970s.
James was apprehended by the U.S. immigration authorities in 1952 and expelled the following year. After that, he mainly resided in Britain, although he traveled widely in continental Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean. In the late 1950s and early 1960s he spent nearly four years in Trinidad, playing a high-profile role in the transition to independence. For eighteen months he edited the newspaper of the People’s National Movement (PNM), at the invitation of his old friend and former pupil, Eric Williams, whose landmark Capitalism and Slavery (1944) drew on The Black Jacobins and benefited from James’s comments on successive drafts. James’s relationship with Williams and other PNM leaders soured as a result of differences over foreign relations and party-building. James left Trinidad on the eve of formal independence, and when he returned in 1965, Williams placed him under house arrest as a dangerous subversive. After his release, James founded the Workers and Farmers Party (WFP) as an electoral challenge to Williams’s rule. The WFP performed poorly in the 1966 elections, and James flew back to Britain.
Since the mid-1990s, there has been an outpouring of scholarship on James’s life and work. Some scholars have focused on retrieving biographical information, and making available unpublished or neglected writings, while others have explored James’s contributions to literary criticism, scholarship on Hegel, cultural studies, and postcolonial studies. A number of authors have emphasized his role as an observer of cultural and historical change; others have focused on his relationship to left politics and historical materialism. Along with Antonio Gramsci, James offers an example of a twentieth-century Marxist whose reputation has risen after the collapse of Soviet Communism. The fact that his name is embedded in the West Indian cultural firmament speaks to the multifaceted character of his complex legacy. There are few modern writers of note who ranged as widely and creatively as C. L. R. James did across the humanities and social sciences.
- Buhle, Paul. 1989. L. R. James: The Artist as Revolutionary. London: Verso.
- Cudjoe, Selwyn R., and William E. Cain, eds. 1995. L. R. James: His Intellectual Legacies. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.
- Grimshaw, Anna, ed. 1992. The C. L. R. James Reader. Oxford: Blackwell.
- Worcester, Kent. 1996. L. R. James: A Political Biography. Albany: State University of New York Press.
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