Today is the last day of Black History Month and this is the final biography for this year, of black radicals whom I admire and who have influenced me.
CLR James is one of the great and underrated Marxists of the 20th Century. He was a Pan-African, in the tradition of Bakunin, and influenced Aime Cesar and Franz Fanon
His Pan-Africanism called out to the oppressed not only in Africa but the Caribbean, his home, to mobilize not around the narrowness of nationalism, but to strive to see the importance of Africanism as a counter to the colonial ideology of racism and oppression.
“this independent Negro movement is able to intervene with terrific force upon the general social and political life of the nation, despite the fact that it is waged under the banner of democratic rights ... [and] is able to exercise a powerful influence upon the revolutionary proletariat, that it has got a great contribution to make to the development of the proletariat in the United States, and that it is in itself a constituent part of the struggle for socialism.”.
The C L R James Internet Archive
He was a philosopher, an author, and a cricket fan.
He always came back to cricket and soccer as the great icon of working class democracy and plurality. And he always spoke highly of his favorite British Novel; Vanity Fair.
I had the pleasure of hearing him speak at the University of Alberta on four occasions through out his life. And he was always challenged by the Trotskyists in the city because being Trotsky' former secretary, he had split with the old man over the issue of whether the Stalinist Soviet Union was a 'degenerated workers state' or if it was state capitalism. He and his political partner Raya Dunayevskaya took the latter position as the Johnston-Forest tendency.
It was during this time that the Johnston-Forest tendency reached the conclusion that as they felt there was no true socialist society existing anywhere in the world, they called for a return to Marxist philosophy. Their return to Hegel's philosophy as being the foundation of Marx's philosophy was largely due to Dunayevskaya, who was deeply immersed in both Marx's and Lenin's writings. Johnson-Forest remained in the Socialist Workers Party until 1950, exiting with the book co-authored by James and Dunayevskaya, State Capitalism and World Revolution. In the three years Johnson-Forest remained in the Socialist Workers Party, James also participated in party discussions on the American “Negro question” (as it was then called), arguing for support for separate struggles of blacks as having the potential to ignite the entire U.S. political situation, as they in fact did in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
He was a vibrant speaker, even in his final years suffering from Parkinsons. He spoke of Hegel and Lenin, with a passion and an approach that clarified complex ideas and arguments in a language that was clear and straight forward. Bereft of sloganeering or jargon. And he was always approachable after his speeches, to discuss his ideas.
I had read his Black Jacobin's which we carried at our Anarchist bookstore; Erewhon Books. Whenever I watch the movie Burn! I think of it as an excellent example of the lessons taught by CLR James in that book.
But to hear the perpetual Old Man speak was always a treat and a joy. I was young, he was a grandfather figure. Even in his last years, fighting the spasms, he spoke with a vibrancy of life fighting death, spirit fighting oppression. He was an inspiration.
His influence in the Caribbean cannot be underestimated even today. His influence on Marxism cannot either, for he gave birth to the New Left when he and his tendency split with Trotsky and Trotskyism.
CLR James was a 20th Century Renaissance man.
West Indian émigré, political organiser, Marxist theorist, historian, literary and cultural critic, novelist, playwright and short-story writer, teacher, cricketer, sports commentator. C.L.R. James’s life work covered a strikingly wide range of interests. All of these were tied together by James’s rigorous method and integrated political vision. In the obituary published in The New York Times on May 31, 1989, his third wife and former political collaborator, Selma James, wrote:
C.L.R. James was fundamentally a political person and his great contribution was to break away from the very narrow and white male concept of what Marxist politics was. He saw the world, literature, sports, politics and music as one totality, and saw political life as embodying all of those, which was very different from the politics he walked into in the middle of the 1930s, first in England and then in the United States.
The intellectual legacy of Cyril Lionel Robert James is complex and controversial. Best known as the author of The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, James also made significant contributions in the fields of sport criticism, Caribbean history, literary criticism, Pan African politics and Marxist theory. Though many academics and political activists have attempted to do so, it is impossible to isolate any one period of James' life as his true legacy. Many have lamented the lack of "a coherent sense of James' life as an integrated whole." James' political and literary activities extended over five decades and several countries - including Trinidad, Britain, the United States and Ghana. Such a long and extensive career easily lends itself to interpretative debate. Yet any accurate assessment of James' work must begin with his origins. Above all else, James was a quintessentially Caribbean writer. Like George Lamming, Jean Rhys and many others, James had to expatriate himself to reach an audience. His eclectic pursuits developed largely in response to his circumstances - to changing conditions in world politics and his personal situation
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