The Young C.L.R. James in Race & Class

The Young C.L.R. James: A Graphic Novelette

By Christian Hogsbjerg
Race & Class
March 2019

The republication, thirty years after it was first written in 1988, of Paul Buhle’s pioneering biography of the Trinidadian writer and revolutionary C. L. R. James, ‘the artist as revolutionary’, might at first sight be viewed slightly cynically as an attempt by Verso to join – or perhaps rather rejoin – what Robin D. G. Kelley in his new foreword to the work somewhat provocatively calls ‘a literary gold rush’ around James. Yet this would be a mistaken judgement, for as the ‘authorised biography’ of James, Buhle’s work remains, and will always remain, both distinc- tive by its very nature, despite the accumulation of new knowledge about James and his life and work that has since come to light, and educational and revelatory in its own right, thanks to Buhle’s closeness to, and deep understanding of, his subject.

Though the original work was written at some speed, Buhle’s The Artist as Revolutionary successfully provided an account of James’s individual political and intellectual evolution situated within a narrative about the intertwined col- lective fate of the broader wider Left over the course of the twentieth century, replete with thought-provoking contrasts with other critical contemporary activ- ists and intellectuals. With an eye for the telling quote, and making excellent use of interviews he had conducted with James about his life, Buhle brought to this work his own lived experience of socialist activism in the American New Left, his understanding of Marxist theory as an early youthful admirer of Daniel de Leon’s Socialist Labour Party, and his skills as a social historian. To adequately contex- tualise James’s long life, from his growing up in Port-of-Spain in colonial Trinidad in the early twentieth century, to his turn to militant Pan-Africanism and revolu- tionary socialism in 1930s Britain, to subsequent sojourns in the United States, Caribbean and Africa amid decolonisation, is no small task for any scholar writ- ing even now. But to do so when ‘James scholarship’ was in its infancy was a remarkable achievement. Buhle’s work also successfully succinctly and cogently summarised the wide variety of James’s writings, from novels like Minty Alley to classic socialist histories like World Revolution and The Black Jacobins to treatises on Marxist philosophy such as Notes on Dialectics and works of literary criticism such as Mariners, Renegades and Castaways (on Melville’s Moby Dick).

Indeed, there are still hidden depths to Buhle’s work – the original text of which he resisted the temptation to change or update for this new edition – and even the most seasoned scholar of black radicalism will benefit from reading, or perhaps more likely, rereading, Buhle’s biography.

This is partly because the period in which it was written ensured that it was written as a ‘political biogra- phy’ first and foremost. As Kelley rightly points out in the foreword, the 1980s was a world ‘marked by crisis and its antithesis: opportunity’, and ‘Buhle was part of a New Left generation of writers, organisers, and scholars seeking a new direction for revolutionary movements’ as official ‘Communism’ stagnated, declined and then finally collapsed. Though Buhle’s biography made it clear enough that his sympathies for a return to ‘Leninism’ in whatever form were distinctly limited, and indeed he was open to the possibilities and potentialities of postmodernist theory for new scholarship on James, he closed his biography in 1988 still calling for ‘a Jamesian politics’. Buhle quoted ‘the young old revolution- ary’ James himself, grappling with the challenges of the 1980s but still stressing that the ‘workers and peasants must realize that their emancipation lies in their own hands and in the hands of nobody else’.

The new edition includes a substantial, valuable and illuminating afterword, co-written by Buhle and his collaborator Lawrence Ware, a lecturer in philoso- phy at Oklahoma State University, entitled, ‘Reviewing – and Renewing – the C.L.R. Legacy for the Twenty-First Century’. This among other things reflects in a generous fashion on the new scholarship on James which has appeared over the last thirty years, and provides a more detailed commentary on aspects of James’s life and work which received less attention and were less well known when the original biography was written. The afterword to the new edition also includes a brief piece on ‘C.L.R. James Today’ by Ware, which attempts to situ- ate James in the context of contemporary black struggles in the United States. This short piece might be usefully read alongside a new ‘Palgrave Pivot’ publi- cation by Ornette D. Clennon, a sociologist at Manchester Metropolitan University, which tries to do the same for contemporary black struggles in the United Kingdom: The Polemics of C.L.R. James and Contemporary Black Activism. It is obviously encouraging that a new generation of black ‘critical race theorists’ in both the US and UK are turning to James and engaging with his life, work and legacy for thinking about questions of race and resistance amid the current BlackLivesMatter Movement.

Clennon, in particular, is to be congratulated for making the critical intellec- tual effort to try and wrestle theoretically with how James might have made sense of the contemporary critical moment in Britain, amid ‘Brexit’ and the rise of Corbynism. He writes about how he metaphorically ‘became friends’ with James and came to appreciate his ‘intense intellectual creativity and playfulness’ as a theorist after getting involved with a short-lived and sadly defeated com- munity campaign in 2015 to try to revive the derelict ‘Nello James Centre’ in Whalley Range, South Manchester, as a resource centre for the local black com- munity, as, for decades, it had once been after its founding in 1967. As might be expected from someone who freely admits that he has only begun really reading and thinking about James over the last couple of years, Clennon’s work – despite its somewhat grandiose title – is less about ‘the polemics of C.L.R. James’ than it is about using a rather random and limited selection of James’s essays (mainly about black struggles in Jim Crow America from the 1940s and 1950s) as an entry point for Clennon to give us his own take on ‘contemporary black activism’ in Britain from the perspective of what he calls ‘a synthesis of Post-Colonial and Post-Marxist theories’.

As a result, perhaps we ultimately learn more about Clennon and his politics than we do about James and his. Clennon’s take on ‘Brexit’ is that a new English ‘colonial administration’ has emerged which, under a bureaucratic deception of ‘social unity’, ‘encouraged synthetic anti-immigrant sentiment of the masses during the Referendum’; there is also a sense of the contemporary and historic tensions between black community organisations and trade unions in Britain around various black struggles. Though Clennon praises James’s polemics for representing ‘an unguarded and visceral James that enables him to display his outstanding abilities in the areas of cultural commentary, historical and critical thinking’, James’s Marxism is deemed flawed both for its advocacy of multira- cial working-class unity and the fact it is apparently unable to come to terms with the challenges posed by the rise of neoliberalism. For Clennon, ‘not only has capitalism transcended the notion of the nation state, it has permeated the culture of our institutions, our ways of thinking, and in so doing, it has drasti- cally re-orientated our psychic spaces’. Indeed, ‘neoliberalism has become too entrenched a Zeitgeist for us to un-imagine’, though how Clennon manages to utilise his imagination effectively in order to analyse it, when apparently the masses are unable to make this leap, remains unclear.
Indeed, such an argument about neoliberalism, in the British context at least, appears to be belied by the rise of Corbynism, and Clennon accepts that ‘with Momentum leading a grass- roots surge in support of Corbyn … there does appear to be an appetite from certain quarters to put an end to our system of “colonial administration”’.

However, ‘the utter end of capitalism and the introduction of a post-racial social- ism’ apparently remains ‘a utopian ideal’, and so the best we can learn from James is how ‘to be creative in our resistance’ to neoliberalism, working ‘from within the system’. Whatever the strengths of Clennon’s work, it hardly makes for a particularly insightful read if the reader was hoping for a book that would seri- ously try to apply a radical ‘Jamesian’ perspective to contemporary black strug- gles in the UK. Such a book would surely have as its bedrock the considerable rich body of writing and speeches by James on black struggles in Britain from the 1930s up to the 1980s – though admittedly much of these remain scattered and hidden away in often hard to find publications.

With respect to future directions in James scholarship, Buhle and Ware rightly note that in particular ‘more research needs to be done in Trinidad’ with respect to understanding his early life. The two have worked with black American car- toonist Milton Knight to produce The Young C.L.R. James: a graphic novelette, which brings some of the autobiographical elements of James’s Beyond a Boundary to life in Knight’s distinctive style, and in a format – a ‘graphic novelette’ – that has the potential to enable the story of James’s early life to reach new, younger audiences. This was originally envisioned as a project which would ambitiously try to cover the whole of James’s life, and sadly we just have here ‘chapter one’ on ‘the little black puritan’ in colonial Trinidad, together with some sketches about the 1936 London production of James’s play Toussaint Louverture. Though Knight’s idiosyncratic ‘Americanised’ style is something of an acquired taste, and one can imagine many cricket purists in particular raising the odd eyebrow over depictions of cricket matches which resemble baseball games, nonetheless one is left wanting more. Given the success of Kate Evans’s superb Red Rosa, about the life of Rosa Luxemburg, it is to be hoped that Knight might one day be inspired enough to return to his portrayal of James’s revolutionary life, and give us ‘Red C.L.R.’.

Back to Milton Knight’s Artist Page| Back to Paul Buhle’s Editor Page | Back to Lawrence Ware Editor’s Page