C.L.R. James: an Introduction

Benjamin Graves '98, Brown University

Author of The Black Jacobins (1938), Breaking a Boundary (1963), and volumes of essays involving class and race antagonism, West Indian self-determination, cricket, Marxism, and aesthetics, C.L.R. James passed away in May, 1989 -- a milestone year that witnessed the fall of the cold war in Berlin, the "fatwah" death threat levelled upon Salman Rushdie by the Ayatollah Komeini, the Tiananmen Square student-uprising, and the collapse of Communist regimes in Warsaw, Prague, and Budapest. James' contributions to the task of Third World liberation (ranging from the American "negro question" to the problem of "dialectical materialism" in the writings of Lenin and Trotsky) perhaps finally saw their ambitions met in that year, and perhaps only since then has James met the critical attention and approbation that he has long deserved.

James' materialist intervention into the issues of civil rights, race, class, Communism, cultural production and reception positions him at the center of the leading Marxist interpretors of colonialism and anticolonial struggle in the twentieth century. James' encyclopedeic knowledge of literature, cricket, and politics enabled him to write a prolific body of work over his lengthy career--works including the drama Toussaint Louverture, the novel Minty Alley, and a Trotskyist analysis of the Third International entitled World Revolution. Although James was ideologically to part ways with Trotsky the late 1940's, he continued to insist upon a class analysis of race and culture from the extreme left.

In The Black Jacobins, James describes the San Domingo slave revolt (the "Haitian Revolution") of 1791-1803. Largely a critical portrait of the uprising's leader, Toussaint Louverture, the book is James' first published work--one that many have hailed as a blueprint to all future Third World proletarian revolutionary work. James' historical account of what he terms "the only successful slave revolt in history" raises important questions concerning the heterogeneity of resistance movements, intellectualism and leadership, the opposition of singularity and collectivity, and the complex ambitions and complicities of the colonial bourgeoisie.

In Breaking a Boundary, James offers a quasi-autobiographical depiction of his experiences with cricket--a sport inextricably linked with the socio-historical context of British imperialism that shaped Trinidadian history. James portrays cricket at once as an artform and an instrument of social reform, and takes great care to explain the complicated process whereby cricket (ostensibly a residue of British colonial rule) has been reappropriated as a means of resistance. Perhaps more than any other of James' works, this volume demonstrates the breadth of James capacity for cultural criticism. Willing to grant cricket and calypso the same political resonance as theatre and literature, James stands at variance with many Eurocentric postrstructuralist thinkers with differing attitudes towards culture low and high.

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