Review: Christian Høgsbjerg, C.L.R. James in Imperial Britain (2014)

Editors’ Note: This review is part of an on-going series of articles in Insurgent Notes by Matthew Quest on the life and politics of C.L.R. James.

Scholarship on CLR James, the Pan African and independent socialist, often takes the tone of a thin cultural studies where political insight is minimal and factual detail rooted in archival sources is negligible. Grasping James’s role in intellectual and social movement history requires resisting the tendency to group him narrowly in the fields of “Marxism” or the “Black radical tradition.” These are invented frameworks, shorthand which obscures a limited knowledge of James’s actual innovation and creativity, in contrast to other representative figures, but also mystification of the reality of elite party politics and the self-directed liberating activity by ordinary people in insurgent movements regardless of color. An original work on James stimulates the reader to grapple with fragments of Western societies and the Third World. We are compelled to see the search for identity of the colonized and workers’ self-emancipation in conversation. If James believed civilization was in decline, he also insisted that we do not understand it properly if we cannot see how autonomous struggles of labor have democratized civilization and that the purported underdeveloped countries have something to teach us about modern politics and struggles for self-emancipation in imperial nations. For James, “civilization” was never owned by racists and imperialists, and everyday people (if intermittently) were the chief actors that deposited contributions to world heritage whose weight dwarfed those of aspiring rulers on a world scale.

Christian Høgsbjerg’s C.L.R. James in Imperial Britain sets a new standard in James Studies for he has combed key archival sources bringing increased insight and factual detail to considerations of his life and work. By focusing on his first sojourn to Britain (1932–1938), the author wishes to explore how James left Trinidad with ambitions to be a literary man, marked by an obscure liberal humanism (the author emphasizes the influence on James of Matthew Arnold), but soon became transformed into a partisan of the anti-colonial and international labor movements.

In this period James prodigiously published volumes and edited publications which transformed how we comprehend the rise and fall of Communist Internationalism and advanced understanding of the African Diaspora. Yet Høgsbjerg shows that it was James’s migrations through cricket-grounds, meeting halls, bohemian spaces, bookshops, museum exhibits, working-class flats, the homes of elites, and comparatively provincial tea shops that gave him an audience with diverse thinkers whereby he interacted and they mutually cultivated each others’ global insights.

In roughly six years, James accomplished the publishing of the following: The Black Jacobins (1938), the classic account of Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Haitian Revolution; a theatrical play starring Paul Robeson on this same topic; World Revolution, the first anti-Stalinist account in English of the Communist International; a translation from the French of Boris Souvarine’s Stalin: A Critical Survey of Bolshevism; Minty Alley, the first novel of Caribbean yard life; a short biography The Life of Captain Cipriani, a labor leader in Trinidad of the late 1920s and early 1930s; the pamphlet The Case for West Indian Self-Government, and the small but influential book A History of Negro Revolt (later re-published as A History of Pan African Revolt in 1969), which remarkably highlighted the independent thought and labor actions of African and African Diaspora peoples against slavery and colonialism.

While he brought his Caribbean manuscripts, besides The Black Jacobins, with him to Britain, he found publishers for seemingly everything even by accident. He also edited International African Opinion, the journal of George Padmore’s International African Service Bureau (1937–1939), and Fight, a journal of the fledgling Trotskyist movement in Britain. Høgsbjerg discusses these publications in various ways but it is the intellectual and social movement context the author brings to these works, which continue to animate critical minds today, that makes the reader pause and delight. Let me mention some of these details with particular attention to teasing out the origins of James’s libertarian and romantic socialist impulses that are often neglected, and challenge as well the notion that James was always a paradoxical Pan African with a Eurocentric disposition.

James had a little-known dispute about the meaning of anthropology for the self-governing and creative capacities of Black people in 1933 in a newspaper where a critic holds an exhibit of African art in contempt. Stanley Casson judged African artists as having the primitive minds of children. Notably, Casson was an expert on the sculpture of James’s beloved Ancient Greeks. James not only referenced the self-governing attributes of obscure African tribes, to his European audience, like the Bushongo of Central Africa, and the latest anthropology theory by the likes of Franz Boas, but he said true connoisseurs of art know it is a creative asset to see the world through the mind of a child. This suggested that not only was James’s adversary intellectually biased toward African cultures but he was not up to date in aesthetic theory. This is a profound early story for those who persist in seeing James’s affinity for the experiment in democracy in Athens being a permanent blind spot on an African worldview.

James was reading not just Marx, Lenin and Trotsky in 1933–34, but equally Henri Bergson, Oswald Spengler, and Jules Michelet—while not feeling the need to endorse their politics. The latter three would have given him a greater sense of the hidden depths, latent understanding, and creative genius of ordinary people and the notion that socialism was not synonymous with the welfare state but a certain variant of civilizational ethics. James subsequently brought this sensibility to his unique Hegelian Marxist approach to working-class self-activity in his first American years.

He was in dialogue with the German anarchist bookseller Charles Lahr and became fond of Peter Kropotkin’s account of the French Revolution. James was in touch with George Orwell whose account of the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia, shaped his understanding of social revolution as necessarily a revolt not just against conservatives, but against progressives. His anti-Stalinism and anti-fascism, and his insights about the weaknesses of parliamentary politics, were reinforced by witnessing workers fighting in the streets in France, where he had traveled to research The Black Jacobins. During this time he collaborated with Eric Williams, later the first prime minister of Trinidad and author of Capitalism & Slavery, and Léon Damas, the famous Negritude poet, in his archival and translation work. James’s public lectures and meetings with the Irish, Scottish, and Nelson, Lancashire, working class clarified to him that while London-based intellectuals had some important revolutionary theory to offer, those whom he met elsewhere that had experienced general strikes and armed struggle had deeper experiences that radicals must meditate on.[1]

Whether in Paris or provincial Britain, James was aware that even well meaning Europeans, at that time, had little experience with African and African Diaspora people in interpersonal terms. When they did, preconceived notions of African primitiveness, exotic character, and their supposed lack of facility in modern languages and politics held sway. James often reminded them that it would be peculiar if he did not speak well in English and French, and did not know European literature, history, and philosophy intimately. He was raised on them, learned them in school, and used to teach many of these subjects in Trinidad at the Oxbridge high school Queens Royal College. A skeptical acquaintance from Nelson, who was fond of James but found it questionable whether James was a representative man of people of African descent, had the chance to visit the West Indies, and reported back that “they are not all like James” and his patron Learie Constantine, the cricket star. Of course all Europeans are not Shakespeare either and both James (and some of his new friends) somewhat had to be deflowered of illusions about the gap between the best of the intellectual heritage of Western societies and ordinary Europeans’ facility (or lack thereof) in these ideas. This was not to mention those who fancied themselves “intellectuals.”

Still, James learned, especially from the Nelson working class (though he had instincts in this direction before arriving in Britain) that if civilization was in decline per Spengler, toilers had democratized it—which Spengler would not concede. He would always insist even in the Age of Black Power and the Third World that it is a mistake to equate the politics of imperialist governments with the working classes below them in metropolitan centers. Remarkably, James gave a public lecture in Nelson challenging the working class there to consider the African peasantry in comparative light to the culture of rural toilers in Britain. Militants of the Nelson working class, who had experienced the British General Strike of 1926 and the rise of the Labor Party, chided James not to expect that Fabian welfare state politicians would more consistently oppose empire than more conservative capitalists.

Høgsbjerg also makes a persuasive case that, especially in the first edition of A History of Negro Revolt, James had an eye for African general strikes as well as an openness to African epistemologies and theologies which was far ahead of his time. One can make a case, in contrast to the author’s claim, that it was this book, just as much as The Black Jacobins, which later influenced the most radical voices of militant labor within Detroit’s League of Revolutionary Black Workers.[2]

This was because the focus on Toussaint, as well as later Black Power personalities like Huey Newton and Angela Davis, made James’s critique of post–civil rights, post-colonial state power unclear (despite condemning the nation-state in absolute terms elsewhere), whereas A History of Negro Revolt, which focused on the self-activity of Black toilers without exhibiting a welfare state of mind, anticipated the social motion later to be found in James’s Notes on Dialectics.

Høgsbjerg’s discussion of James’s leadership in the International African Friends of Abyssinia (1935–1936), which took up defense of Ethiopia from invasion and occupation (1935–1941) by Mussolini’s Italy, is a tremendous contribution to restoring and advancing this neglected aspect of the James heritage with primary sources—though future scholars can still push further. The reader will note the contrast between a little-known essay on slavery by James, written in 1933, and his disposition toward Ethiopia solidarity in 1935–1936. James, responding to the 100th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Britain, spoke about the memory of a former slave in his family in Trinidad. He also accepted uncritically at that time that the League of Nations and the British government had a mandate to fight against slavery and for human rights in the world. His survey of the slave trade in Liberia, Saudi Arabia, and Ethiopia in the 1930s accepted the identity of Haile Selassie as a modernizer. Høgsbjerg argues persuasively that James’s early collaboration with Harold Moody’s League of Colored Peoples (LCP), which in many ways uncritically accepted imperial Britishness, was a sign of a lack of political clarity by James in the early 1930s, though the League published writings by him still valuable and to their Left. But James sided with the West African Student Union (WASU) in Britain when it was revealed that the LCP was collaborating with the British state to place the West African anti-colonial students under surveillance.

Yet when James was compelled to take up Ethiopia solidarity in 1935–1936, he worked with Jomo Kenyatta, Amy Ashwood Garvey, Ras Makonnen, J.B. Danquah, Isaac Wallace Johnson, Chris Braithwaite and others to mobilize anti-imperialist sentiment—at first in solidarity with Emperor Haile Selassie but soon with discomfort. George Padmore would arrive in Britain shortly after the highpoint of this social motion. He had been purged when Moscow’s Popular Front policy betrayed movements for colonial freedom (this began between 1933 and 1935 in different sectors of the globe). Høgsbjerg could have done a better job in highlighting the complex politics of coalitions in the 1935–1936 period. But this is understandable as it is difficult to shift constantly between intellectual history and social movement history which a study of James requires.

James, as the author shows, worked in coalition with the Ethiopian diplomat Dr. Charles Martin (Warquenah Eshate) and also colonial seamen who worked the coasts of both the West African and East African Diasporas. Between them, Amy Ashwood Garvey, Jomo Kenyatta, Ras Makonnen and others, represented different political outlooks on what to do. The key difference here was the following. Did anti-imperialism mean unity with aspiring statesmen in the periphery where lobbying the Western imperialists to maintain the precepts of international law aided the aspirations of these rulers? Or did opposition to empire mean international unity of toilers in center and periphery to overturn all hierarchies and domination? Self-determination either means the right of equality among aspiring capitalist rulers or support for the autonomy of oppressed people to govern themselves under the assumption that capitalism is the denial of ordinary people to directly govern. The historical evolution of “Marxism” would make this unclear if it was ever crystal clear in the first place.

James was fast moving to the far left, by experience not dogmatic ideology, and came to publicly denounce League of Nations sanctions and instead advocated “workers sanctions”—the idea that industrial workers and maritime workers could implement economic sanctions through direct action but nation-states including Britain and Stalinist Russia could not be trusted. The Soviet Union actually traded oil to Mussolini’s Italy as the Italian air force dropped poison gas on Ethiopian villages.

James came to fraternally critique the Pan African George Padmore (despite the fact that he liked the factual data gathered in How Britain Rules Africa, remembered fondly their childhood friendship, and remained friends with him for many years), and, more harshly, the Fabian politician Stafford Cripps, for both advocating “anti-imperialist” perspectives which advocated coalition with benevolent-minded imperialist politicians promoting human rights and development. These conflicting tendencies were not merely intellectual but a tactical conflict that foreshadowed problems of post-colonial freedom.

James was also among the most prominent advocates of the plan for an African Diaspora voluntary militia to come to the aid of Ethiopia. This would have been consistent with the international brigades in the Spanish Civil War. But Dr. Martin, the Ethiopian diplomat, and really Haile Selassie, discouraged this. Instead they accepted the human rights lobbying framework of Sylvia Pankhurst and the diplomatic courtesies of Imperial Britain, who did not immediately resist Fascist Italy or Nazi Germany, but allowed Selassie asylum.

Yet James, beginning in 1935–1936, never accepted this linkage between the government of the British empire and anti-colonial politics, even though his Pan African comrades largely did. He presented himself in an open letter ready to join the Ethiopian resistance and reminded that he would also fight for democracy in Ethiopia not just anti-colonial revolt. This was a tactic of denouncing Martin and Selassie, though in later recollections James suggested Martin was a nice guy. But notably, even in the revised edition of A History of Pan African Revolt, James did not mention the Ethiopia solidarity movement or a critique of Haile Selassie—they were absent from the narrative.

Høgsbjerg suggests that The Black Jacobins, the book, not the play on Haiti, shifts from an incomplete break from Toussaint, as equivalent to a Black Napoleon, toward the greater centrality of African and Caribbean workers in anti-colonial revolt. This suggests another conceptual leap by James from 1936–1938. The author does not mention that, in the conclusion of The Black Jacobins, Dessalines is finally crowned leader of Haiti with the blessing of the Anglo-American empire. This was James’s way of foreshadowing in 1938 the return to the throne of Selassie in 1941 blessed by Britain and the American ruling elites. Yet his theatrical play emphasized more Toussaint as akin to Napoleon and perhaps, for popular audiences of the original script, Haile Selassie. In decades to come there were revised drafts and performances of the play in other global locations that emphasized Moisie, a major dissident of the Haitian Revolution found in The Black Jacobins, anticipating better post-independence politics.

Nevertheless, Høgsbjerg does a good job in placing questions of human trafficking and modern development in conversation with empire and resistance in the 1930s in a manner which complicates the search for autonomy beyond the shadow of state power. His discussion of Trotsky’s theories of permanent revolution and combined and uneven development’s influence on James is valuable as is his attention to Fabians like Beatrice and Sidney Webb’s, GDH Cole’s, and Harold Laski’s being taken in by the Soviet Union’s first Five Year Plan’s claim to have overcome unemployment during the Great Depression as the meaning of “socialism.” While unclear in this study, Høgsbjerg seems to say both it is a good thing for the working class when any nation-state tries to create jobs when there is a scarcity of them, while at the same time this cannot be the meaning of a future socialist society where labor must directly hold the reins. Is the self-organization and self-emancipation of the working class an end in itself? Or is it something Leninists/Jacobins must observe closely in order to cultivate a certain type of capitalist development called “socialism”? James, as I have shown elsewhere, fumbled this question himself in World Revolution but did better in his first American years when he developed state capitalist theory with the Johnson-Forest Tendency.

This seems a good moment to return to Høgsbjerg’s emphasis on Matthew Arnold and the elusive search of many scholars to document the rebel seed within James’s early Victorianism. Was James a Victorian? Or was he raised among Victorians?

Arnold was an elitist who believed that the masses needed more “sweetness and light” through culture. He was trying to discipline and correct what he saw as “anarchy”—the potential of the untutored masses to stir up chaos, not workers’ self-emancipation for a stateless society. Perhaps literary and artistic circles in colonial Trinidad were Arnoldian and James certainly read and quoted Arnold.[3] But was Matthew Arnold the rebel seed or was it William Hazlitt, William Thackeray, or William Shakespeare? An argument can be made for many Williams. But what of a Gilbert who also played with themes of “anarchy” on occasion?

The late James D. Young, in his neglected but important study The World of CLR James: His Unfragmented Vision, searched in vain for the origins of his unique creative radicalism in his intellectual legacies in Trinidad before 1932, specifically for signs of his Third Camp or libertarian socialism. Still Young’s basic impulse to inquire along this path was a valuable probing.[4] This would suggest that, while James did bring some notions of parliamentary socialism to Britain with him, it is proper to inquire about the early signs of his libertarian socialism or his critique of the vanguard party. Høgsbjerg seems to be looking for the origins of James’s affinity for Lenin and Trotsky. James’s Minty Alley, with its interest in the common people of the Caribbean yard, also looks at the dilettante qualities of a middle class intellectual who identifies awkwardly with marginal women in slum life. Høgsbjerg discusses this dilettante quality in his allusion to James’s assessment of Ishmael in Melville’s Moby Dick (in Mariners, Renegades and Castaways, published at the end of James’s first American years) as a possible model for the youthful James. The author documents James’s fondness for alluding to Arnold, but also a youthful politics that goes beyond people who wish to bring philosophy and culture to the proletariat—clearly in colonial Trinidad even as he began to observe the Caribbean labor movement he was not sure what these politics should be.

The mature political James would make perennial criticism of intellectuals who see themselves as the embodiment of culture in both imperial and peripheral nations. I have shown in my own scholarship the tension between James’s direct democracy and workers self-management and his Jacobinism/Leninism of which he learned aspects of all in his first British years.[5] There is a certain continuity between Arnoldism and aspiring to be a Leninist vanguard or a Popular Front welfare stater. But there is nothing Arnoldian about an appreciation for the instinctive genius and latent understanding of the working class which holds vanguards in contempt. Did James start to pick this latter thread up only in his first British years as Høgsbjerg suggests from romantic and libertarian socialists there?

As James’s Beyond A Boundary makes clear, where he makes allusions to many British and European literary figures that were on his mind in his youth, the origins of James’s rebel seed in colonial Trinidad is that he was far less of a Victorian than most have realized. In fact he grows up around Victorians, but he was born in the Edwardian Age. He became a scholarship boy excelling in literary criticism, the social background of the novel specifically. There was one literary critic the young James was exposed to that did anticipate his romantic and libertarian socialist impulses. James learned contempt for the welfare state of mind and progressive intellectuals who could not see that commoners could directly govern themselves and had an instinctive genius. That was Gilbert Keith Chesterton.[6] As Høgsbjerg notes in passing, James read the historical narratives of G.K. Chesterton and his partner in polemics, Hillaire Belloc, who wrote The Party System and The Servile State. These without question anticipated James’s later original analysis of state capitalism which held the welfare state and electoral party politics in contempt. Some radical Marxists offer criticism of liberals today but rarely the welfare state or electoral politics—in fact most wielders of state capitalist theory are not opposed to the welfare state but wish to enhance it and advise its aspiring rulers. When especially people of color or women run for office as bourgeois democrats, it is fashionable for most “socialists” these days to hide under the bed—this has a genealogy on a world scale.

Chesterton taught James to listen to ordinary people’s stories just as much as Marx’s Workers Inquiry. James’s Chesterton recognized only a madman would chastise commoners for having two eyes because they don’t have two hundred. Chesterton was the source of James having no use for hegemony or false consciousness theory. Chesterton and Belloc were inconsistent and sometimes flat wrong on matters of racism and colonialism—Chesterton’s followers on the eve of his death supported Mussolini’s Italy and some of his writings had led them there. Chesterton’s and Belloc’s impact on James needs to be analyzed further. But they were not simply right-wing Catholic intellectuals—perhaps this suggests a new spin on the allusion found in James’s Beyond A Boundary that “Caliban” had to pioneer fields “that Caesar never knew.”[7] For what George Bernard Shaw called “the chesterbelloc” was always fond of the progressive character of the Roman Empire in history. Nevertheless, Chesterton’s intellectual legacies for James overturned and smashed up “imperial Britishness” from the perspective of ordinary people within Britain itself (or at least created mediated narratives so it appeared to be so in a stylized vision).

James’s Beyond A Boundary, his autobiographical meditation on the game of cricket, re-phrased Rudyard Kipling’s adage, as “what do they know of cricket” who cannot see that it is, in embryo, the world of the working class and the colonized. Høgsbjerg makes clear the origins of this perspective in the 1930s experience for James. Chesterton’s rephrasing in Heretics was somewhat different: “what do they know of England who only know the world”? Arnold claimed to know the world in his imperial Britishness and believed ordinary people needed a little more culture—this anticipated the consciousness raisers of today who are asleep at the wheel in their own right.

James was never a progressive. In fact the young colonial James bragged he was a republican. For James’s Chesterton, this was not an American reference but a claim on a heritage which fused a peculiar reading of the Roman Empire and the French Revolution. Casting aside the triumphant Whig narrative that celebrated the Constitutional Monarchy of Britain, it included a House of Commons which betrayed the real commoners.

Chesterton’s notion of the commons “with a small c” can be found in James’s early American Trotskyist labor writings. James embraced in The Black Jacobins Belloc’s idea of the instinctive capacity of the masses for a direct democratic type of revolutionary organization in the French Revolution—but James offered one correction. Belloc was wrong to think this behavior peculiarly French. James argued the Haitians who were formerly enslaved possessed the same qualities as the most advanced workers in Paris.[8] Chesterton often remarked that sojourners leave England to marvel at the religion, gendered, and ritual life of Asia and African peasants as exotic and this discovery appears to humanize them. Yet Chesterton argued in contrast if they would visit the corner pub down the street and talked with the British commoners, or understood their own family better, they would also find folklore to consider that they often held in contempt. An Arnoldian James likely would have not sought out the cricket players, Calypso singers, or the Nelson working class to interrupt them as they were drinking liquor to offer them soap. Chesterton helped James work his way out of Victorianism, middle class racial uplift ideology, and any impact of Social Darwinism. James, aware of such critiques, was prepared to leave behind the elitism of the colonial middle classes when he left for Britain, because his rebel seed was that the obscure local people had something to teach him about his own self-government.

If he also had to learn to cultivate the popular will to assist in either seizing or smashing state power it was questionable that even the young colonial James ever believed his task was to bring sweetness and light to everyday people. For the scholarship boy that enjoyed Thackeray, Dickens and Shakespeare was reading the expert literary criticism of G.K. Chesterton (who famously wrote whole books about each of them). And like James’s own writings and speeches, Chesterton was always (when he wasn’t talking about God) writing about the centrality of the ordinary people to civilization with a sense of wonder and astonishment—in long meandering narratives surprising the reader as he left behind references to the original topic only to return to it to fashion a whole.

Perhaps this is why the James who went to Britain left for America, as Høgsbjerg suggests, prepared to enchant the movements against empire and the struggle of social classes. If James, despite our discontents with him, continues to be a majestic personality, the author, as a great story teller, draws us into an intimate encounter with a figure whose archive and politics are just now surfacing to critical attention not just acclaim. We find Christian Høgsbjerg’s C.L.R. James in his study literally on fire, not merely researching revolutionary history and writing cricket columns. With his sweater accidentally aflame from the heater in his small room, smoke fills the home where he is a guest but he doesn’t notice. Someone has to tell him: “Nello you are on fire.” James doesn’t understand at first, and then anxiously replies: “Oh my goodness, oh my goodness!” This is an apt tale to advertise the vibrant quality of C.L.R. James in Imperial Britain.

  1. [1] Nelson, Lancashire, England in 1932 was a small town of about 38,000 people set among the Pennine hills and built around the cotton industry. It was known as “Red Nelson” or “Little Moscow,” but was not so much rooted in Moscow-oriented politics. It had many libertarian and romantic political tendencies and traditions including a democratic outlook rooted in religious non-conformism and an independent Methodism. Its politics ranged from Gladstonian liberalism to the ideals of the new Independent Labor Party. An autonomous culture of women weavers also distinguished the local experience. See Christian Høgsbjerg, C.L.R. James in Imperial Britain (2014), pp. 39–41.
  2. [2] I am indebted to discussions with Modibo Kadalie, who was in the leadership of the Detroit-based League of Revolutionary Black Workers, for this insight. See Modibo Kadalie, “From One Generation to the Next: The Enduring Legacies of Kimathi Mohammed,” Introduction to Organization & Spontaneity (2013), pp. 11–30; Modibo Kadalie, Interview with Matthew Quest, November 12, 2010, Southern Labor Archives. Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University, Atlanta.
  3. [3] See C.L.R. James, “Discovering Literature in Trinidad: the 1930s,” (1969), in Spheres of Existence: Selected Writings (1980), pp. 237–244. It is notable that this reminiscence by James does talk about Matthew Arnold’s idea of “sweetness and light.” Yet James’s tone suggests his literary circle’s desire to transmit knowledge to commoners, whom his circle believed were backward, was mistaken. It is clear James did not especially believe they were backward. Also most of the period James speaks of here is before the 1930s. He was describing more his social background than his own singular disposition. In 1932 he left for Britain.
  4. [4] See James D. Young, The World of CLR James: His Unfragmented Vision (1999), pp. 18–22, 24–33.
  5. [5] See Matthew Quest, “Silences on the Suppression of Workers’ Self-Emancipation: Historical Problems with C.L.R. James’s Interpretation of V.I. Lenin,” Insurgent Notes #7 (October 2012); Matthew Quest, “Every Cook Can Govern:” Direct Democracy, Workers Self-Management and the Creative Foundations of C.L.R. James’s Political Thought,” The CLR James Journal, vol. 19, 1 & 2 (Fall 2013), pp. 374–391.
  6. [6] C.L.R. James, Beyond A Boundary (1963, 1994), p. 214. It is in the chapter entitled “The Welfare State of Mind,” where he underscores the problem of the welfare state for creativity, where James mentions the importance of Chesterton. He also makes clear that he grew up actually in the Edwardian Age, which he frames here as 1890–1914 and where creative intellectuals were contributing to the break-up of the Victorian Age. James was born in 1901.
  7. [7] See the preface to C.L.R. James, Beyond A Boundary (1963, 1994). It is less than a page and is not paginated.
  8. [8] C.L.R. James, “In the American Tradition: The Working Class Movement in Perspective,” in C.L.R. James and Revolutionary Marxism: Selected Writings of C.L.R. James, 1939–1949, Scott McLemee and Paul LeBlanc, eds. (1994), p. 146; C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins (1938, 1963, 1989), p. 243.

Comments

One Comment so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Christian Hogsbjerg,

    I am grateful to Matthew Quest and Insurgent Notes for this review, which is generous in both content and length and raises some interesting issues, particularly around the issue of the influence on James of G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc.

    Quest writes that ‘Høgsbjerg seems to be looking for the origins of James’s affinity for Lenin and Trotsky … it is proper to inquire about the early signs of his libertarian socialism or his critique of the vanguard party’. The reason my book in some way focuses on ‘James’s road to Marxism’ is partly because that road has never been examined in serious detail before, but also because that is the intellectual and political evolution that actually happened and actually needs to be explained. Now of course those undertaking biographical research on James should also inquire about why other paths were not taken – but the fact remains that James did not arguably become a ‘libertarian socialist’ or a ‘critic of the vanguard party’ until much later (the 1940s/1950s). Indeed, in the late 1920s and early 1930s before he became a Trotskyist James’s politics were if anything distinctly a kind of Fabian, statist ‘socialism from above’ – he was a member of the Labour Party for example in Britain from 1932-34. Before that in Trinidad he was a supporter of the reformist social democratic Trinidadian Workingmen’s Association led by Captain Cipriani which looked to the Labour Party forming a government in Britain to deliver West Indian self-government.

    So while it is interesting to speculate about the possible influence of anti-statist thinkers Chesterton or Belloc on the young James, and Quest has made some thought-provoking points of importance here, I remain unconvinced that they were as important for James as say a figure like Matthew Arnold. Now of course there were very many other influences whether other British writers and thinkers , or American and Caribbean writers and thinkers, on the young James – and there is much much more work to be done tracing and tracking all these influences on him – but the reason I chose to highlight Arnold above all the others was that his influence seemed to come through most clearly in James’s actual early political writings (while in Trinidad).

    Stephen Howe has made the case for seeing the influence of Belloc and Chesterton’s ‘romantic anti-capitalism’ in 1950s works by James such as ‘Facing Reality’ – and so it is therefore highly possible that a latent ‘rebel seed’ was sown in James’s first reading of such writers in Trinidad but this particular seed lay dormant until the 1950s – I would be happy to concede this point to Quest. I would want to do more reading about Chesterton for myself before judging on whether the young James might have been also a Chestertonian as Quest suggests – but I remain a little unconvinced at the moment. For example when Quest asserts that ‘James was never a progressive’ – this just seems way too one-sided to me – in many (but not all) ways the young James was the quintessential ‘progressive’ – the Beacon Group for example waged many a battle against the conservative influence of the Catholic Church in colonial Trinidad.

    Finally, it just seems to me that it is more than a little ahistorical to go about searching for CLR James a proto-critic of the ‘vanguard party’ or ‘the welfare state of mind’ in 1920s Trinidad – before he read or thought about any Lenin or Trotsky whatsoever and before modern welfare state capitalism was even born. To understand why James moved away from orthodox Trotskyism you have to understand the nature of the Trotskyist movement, particularly as it went into crisis after Trotsky’s murder in 1940, and with particular reference to the American context. James’s critique of orthodox Trotskyism was for him conceived as a ‘leap from the heights of Leninism’ and a rediscovery of the real heritage of classical Marxism (Hegel, Marx, Lenin) – the revolutionary democratic tradition of ‘socialism from below’ – in order to try and move forward to the ‘modern politics’ of the future. James did not need essentially conservative and reactionary figures such as Chesterton or Belloc to help him make this move.

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