The World of C.L.R. James: His Unfragmented Vision, by James D Young, Clydeside Press.
Reviewed by Kent Worcester.
These days it seems as if everyone and their uncle possesses their own, private C.L.R. James. As Martin Glaberman has noted, 'Most people have not and could not share the range of what James has done. The result is a fragmented James: James as cultural critic; James as Marxist theoretician; James as Third World guru; James as expert on sports, etc.' The recent outpouring of books on discrete aspects of James' life and work underscores the problem of producing an integrated account of one of the great radical intellectuals of the 20th century.
In this new biography, James Young, an historian of Scottish and labour history and long-time independent socialist, offers an 'unfragmented' account that affirms Paul Buhle's description of James as 'the artist as revolutionary'. Young writes that 'C.L.R. James was a champion of the underdog and a fighter for universal freedom, and the exhortation to live for freedom's cause was the dominant theme of his life'. From Young's standpoint, James' commitment to 'freedom's cause' encompassed literature, social relations, political liberties and economic justice, and thus transcended conventional distinctions between art and politics, economics and personal life, the individual and society.
In developing his case for an unfragmented view of James' contributions, Young provides a lively but somewhat sketchy overview of the major passages in James' peripatetic life. These include his early years in Trinidad; his move to Britain in 1932, where he immersed himself in both Trotskyist and Pan-Africanist politics; his 15-year sojourn in the United States (1938-1953), which was cut off prematurely by McCarthyism; his return first to Britain and then to Trinidad (1958-62), and his efforts in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s to connect his libertarian socialist and somewhat Third Worldist views to a new radical generation in Britain, the US and the West Indies. Along the way he also discusses James' key works, including World Revolution, 1917-1936 (1937), The Black Jacobins (1938), American Civilization (1950), Mariners, Renegades and Castaways (1953), and Beyond a Boundary (1963). He inflates, in my opinion, the significance of a pioneering but crucially flawed pamphlet that James hastily penned at the end of the 1930s, A History of Negro Revolt (later retitled A History of Pan-African Revolt), but neglects James' only novel, Minty Alley (1936), which has held up well over the years.
The reason that Young's biographical portrait has a sketchy and even idiosyncratic quality is because he is highly deferential - overly so, in my view - to the work that has already been undertaken on James. The book is larded with references to writings by Paul Buhle, Scott McLemee, Anna Grimshaw, and others, to the point where it seems as if Young is more interested in adding a footnote to work that has already been published than blazing a new trail for research and study. And yet Young does have a distinctive point of view to offer and a larger argument to make.
There are two major innovations in Young's biography. First, he has uncovered intriguing material on James' political work in Britain during the 1930s and in particular his encounters with radicals in Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland. He has interesting things to report about how James' interactions with working class socialists on the 'near inside' of the British Empire prodded his politics in a socialism-from-below direction. As Young notes, although 'his socialist vision and convictions began to crystallise' on the 'dull and unspectacular terrain of right-wing England in the early 1930s', his political perspective was powerfully informed by his extended visits to Glasgow, South Wales and Dublin.
Second, Young wisely avoids the two traps that plague the secondary literature on James: of overstating his importance as a Marxist political leader, and of treating James as a cultural critic divorced from his political commitments. He depicts James, correctly in my view, as an unorthodox left-wing thinker and writer who responded to changing political and social conditions with creativity and verve. As the British SWP once said of Jean-Paul Sartre, James (sometimes) 'missed the boat but kept on swimming'. This larger and properly generous perspective on James' life and work is neither hagiographic or condemnatory, and rightly situates James' importance in terms of his finest revolutionary prose, and the general thrust of his political activism, rather than any single political perspective that he helped develop.
One minor shortcoming of the book is Young's penchant for gossip, which almost receives as much attention as substantive political issues. As it happens, James tended to attract more than his fair share of hearsay within the various social circles that he operated. He clearly enjoyed the company of beautiful women, and each of his three marriages fell apart for reasons that may or may not reveal something significant about his underlying temperament and sensibility. An early draft of my own biography - C.L.R. James: A Political Biography, published by the State University of New York Press in 1996 - was turned down by a well-known academic publisher because it failed to give sufficient weight to James' complicated private life.
But it reads as if Young has included every piece of gossip he came across, whether via interviews or written sources. Two examples: does the reader really need to know the details of Young's tussles with Jim Murray of the C.L.R. James Institute and Murray's reluctance to provide Young with a minor piece that James wrote on Mark Twain in 1984? And was it useful to report, twice, my third-hand gossip about the difficulties that James' son, C.L.R. Jr., has had as an adult, after I advised him that my information was sketchy and that if he wished to write about this he would need a more direct source?
These are not crucially important issues, and I hesitate to mention them except for the fact that the text places such heavy emphasis on what I regard as near-irrelevancies (at best a matter for footnotes). The more important point is that Young has produced a spirited contribution to the growing bookshelf of works about C.L.R. James, and that he has rightly emphasised James' lasting contribution as a writer, and political activist, rather than as a canonical source which radicals should consult for guidance and expertise. Workers' Liberty readers and supporters who remain sceptical of any robust defence of James' life and work might benefit from a weekend spent with The Black Jacobins, Beyond a Boundary, or American Civilization - or Scott McLemee's wonderful edited collection C.L.R. James on the 'Negro Question' - for a reality check.
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