Special Delivery: The Letters of C.L.R. James to Constance Webb, 1939-1948
CLR James with Raya Dunayevskaya and Grace Lee during the 1940s. They were leaders in the Johnson-Forrest Tendency of the Fourth International.
Originally uploaded by Pan-African News Wire File Photos
CLR James with Raya Dunayevskaya and Grace Lee during the 1940s. They were leaders in the Johnson-Forrest Tendency of the Fourth International.
Originally uploaded by Pan-African News Wire File Photos
THE LETTERS OF C.L.R. JAMES TO CONSTANCE WEBB, 1939-48
Cyril Lionel Robert James is one of the outstanding figures of the twentieth century. The rich legacy of his published writing reveals the scope and variety of his life's work, spanning as it did four continents and a writing career of more than half a century. In the pages which follow I hope to provide a context for the letters James wrote to a young American woman, Constance Webb, during his first, extended stay in the United States. This remarkable body of writing, hitherto unpublished, is less a record of a relationship, more the spiritual journey of a man unburdening himself to someone he barely knew and yet instinctively trusted. For only one side of the correspondence survives and Constance Webb's presence in it remains something which we, the readers—not unlike James himself—must construct in our imagination. Through his love for a woman, James found a way to articulate much that gave meaning to his own life and work. His letters to Constance Webb, written over half a century ago, stand as a powerful and profoundly unsettling expression of the complex forces which animated his personality. But more than this, the interplay between James's own individuality and the world in which he lived is uniquely revealed by this correspondence. For the political struggles central to the social revolution of the twentieth century, conflicts of race, class and gender, were mirrored by divisions within James himself; and an understanding of the intense personal battles which he fought within himself illuminates, I believe, the tremendous conflicts of our modern age.
Constance Webb, an aspiring actress and model, met James in the spring of 1939. She was part of the audience in a Los Angeles church for his talk, “The Negro Question,” which he gave toward the end of a nationwide speaking tour.1 He was en route to his meeting with Trotsky in Mexico; and the first letters to Webb were sent from the exiled revolutionary's headquarters in Coyoacan. They mark the beginning of the correspondence which James pursued for almost a decade. It consists of over two hundred letters, handwritten, often many pages long, sometimes snatched notes jotted down while travelling or during meetings, at other times extended musings on art, love, literature and politics.
The young woman who prompted such an outpouring from James describes herself in an unpublished memoir as a seventh-generation American of western birth and southern parentage.2 Her parents were from Atlanta, Georgia; and although they lived for many years in California, they could not, according to Webb, escape their deeply rooted southern heritage. Webb, however, became involved early on in socialist politics, developing a particular interest in the race question. She was eighteen when she met James, who was almost twenty years her senior; but she sparked off something profound in him, and her process of self-discovery became inseparable from his own.
James's letters to Webb chart a journey. The correspondence is anchored in the most intimate and personal concerns of two people; but their exploration of the differences between them, differences of race, gender, age and background, open out to encompass questions at the heart of modern civilization. The fact that these letters were written in the New World is not accidental. Indeed it is impossible to imagine James writing them anywhere else. For he experienced America as a moment of freedom. He was freed, if only temporarily, from the weight and claustrophobia of his colonial and European past; and he felt a tremendous surge in his creative powers.
The Webb correspondence thus documents in a unique way James's experience of America, not least by the sheer volume of letters written between 1939 and 1948. It offers a fascinating insight into the rigors of a revolutionary life, exposing the dynamics of a small political group, its external battles and internal strife; and we are often reminded of the disparity between the size of the group and the scale of its political ambitions (world revolution). But, above all, James's letters to Webb constitute a profound reflection on love and art. Perhaps what strikes the reader most forcibly is the sense that in his correspondence James opened up a free and private space, one in which he could dream, fantasize, admit to needs and desires, explore new dimensions of human experience, discover intimacy, unburden himself, indulge his wit and playfulness—in short do all the things he repressed in his public persona. For James, the revolutionary leader, was never anything but reserved and self-controlled, always a master of himself, the situation and the party line. In contrast, the letters read as a series of dramatic scenarios in which James tries out different roles or voices— sometimes the brave, romantic hero, at others the serious mentor and friend, the indulgent lover, the stern unbending comrade, and even, occasionally, the willing pupil.
It was through his exchanges with Webb that James began to explore, and to seek to integrate, aspects of his personality which were normally suppressed or kept separate—such as art and politics, Hollywood film and the Hegelian dialectic, emotions and ideas. But James's attempt at synthesis, stimulated by the unleashing of an extraordinary passion for Webb, contained in microcosm the much broader and ambitious project he was pursuing to identify America's distinctive contribution to modern civilization. The process of discovery was then for him both personal and political. He recognized that these disparate dimensions of human experience were intertwined as never before in history; and yet they remained separated in modern society and personality, and within the revolutionary movement itself.
We are conscious, almost from the beginning, of the tension between the two parts of James's life in the United States. Hostility and suspicion toward art, culture, civilization and happiness ran deep in the revolutionary Left. No one knew this better than James himself. Moreover, given its place at the center of bourgeois society, the question of human subjectivity or of the uniqueness of the individual personality had long been downplayed by the revolutionary movement in favor of a concern with much bigger, abstract questions. But the denial of individuality which this involved usually resulted in its distorted expression, manifesting itself in the personal rivalry, tensions, divisions and endless segmentation which notoriously plagued such groups. There was often a striking contradiction between the scope of the historical and political analyses attempted by these revolutionaries and the narrow confines of their personal lives.3
It was James's experience of living in the New World, specifically of trying to love an American woman, which made him acutely aware of these divisions within his own personality. In the course of the correspondence we become increasingly aware of the discrepancy between what James calls “essence” and “appearance,” between his internal state (chaos, the demons) and his external presentation (order, restraint, commitment). The strain of mediating such a sharp contradiction surfaces again and again in his letters. We witness James's endless struggle against illness, the physical incapacity caused by his ulcer and stomach problems; but perhaps more poignant, even than his admission of sexual failure, is our discovery that the strain expresses itself in a shaking hand which, at times, is so acute that it becomes physically difficult for him to write at all.
But James's internal struggle was inseparable from the intense conflicts which he identified as raging at every level of twentieth-century society. It was what he called in his 1950 work, American Civilization, “the struggle for happiness,” the need to realize the full and free expression of individual personality within new and expanded conceptions of social life. James believed the conflict between individual and society to be most acute in America. For he saw that the highly developed sense of the individual personality and the people's restless energies expended in the search for new forms of collective life were always in conflict with an industrial capitalist system whose mechanized division of labor was inevitably oppressive. “This is the fundamental conflict,” James wrote in his 1950 manuscript. “There is on the one hand the need, the desire, created . . . by the whole mighty mechanism of American industry, to work, to learn, to master the machine, to co-operate with others in building glittering miracles. . . . And on the other the endless frustration of being merely a cog in a great machine, a piece of production as is a bolt of steel, a pot of paint or a mule which drags a load of corn. This conflict is staggering in its scope and implications. It goes on all day and every hour of the day.”4
I came across the Webb letters while working as James's assistant in the final years of his life. When I began to read them for the first time I found myself looking up from the page to glance across my desk at James. It was an instinctive response to discovering something new; and I wanted to look again at the man whose turbulent inner life was now spread before me. Many times I was disappointed. I saw only a tired, withdrawn old man, his frail but once powerful frame hidden beneath his favorite red blanket as he dozed in an armchair. At other times, though, I saw sudden surges of tremendous vitality, indeed passion, filling and animating his whole personality; and for a brief moment he was transformed into the romantic hero of the Webb letters.
Reading the correspondence moved me deeply, provoking intense and contradictory responses. I found the letters compulsive and yet unsettling; and on reaching their dramatic climax in 1948 I felt that I had been drawn into the eye of a storm, that I had witnessed a drama of epic proportions which was almost Shakespearean in its grandeur and its tragedy. The Webb correspondence lays bare both the scope and the limitations of an individual personality. Its tragedy lies in James's final recognition that, although he believes the individual is able to transcend the limitations of society and history, he cannot in fact defeat the demons inside himself. At times James imagined himself striding the stage of world history as universal man; but the heroic bravado is ultimately shattered by the tremendous flaws in his restricted and divided personality.
THE LIFE AND WORK OF C.L.R. JAMES (1901-89)
C.L.R. James spent his final years living in a tiny book-lined room in Brixton, south London. Although he often complained that he had to sleep in the same room as his books, I knew each morning when I picked my way over the scattered volumes of Shakespeare, Thackeray or Arnold Bennett which lay around his bed, that they had been his companions during the long hours of darkness. During the day James liked to read or watch television, sitting in his old fashioned high-backed armchair; but his eye was always half-watching the pencil sketch propped against the desk at which I worked. He was intrigued by what Margaret Glover's portrait revealed about himself. At first he was satisfied to discover that there were no traces in the drawing of his feckless brother, Eric; later he gleaned resemblances to his schoolmaster father, sometimes to the stern, puritanical aunts who had watched over his childhood in Trinidad; but more often he saw his mother, a woman of remarkable elegance, who at the beginning of the century in a tiny outpost of the British Empire had introduced her son to literature: “. . . she was a reader. She read everything that came her way. I can see her now, sitting very straight with the book held high, her pince-nez on her Caucasian nose, reading till long after midnight. If I got up there she was, reading, the book still held high. As she read and put it down I picked it up.”5
James's early life in the Caribbean was dominated by literature and cricket.6 As a young boy he watched cricketers from the window of his house, drawn to the individuality of certain players and conscious of how deeply rooted the game had become in the small island society. James, or “Nello” as his mother called him, was a bright, precocious child. He quickly developed a distinctive approach to understanding cricket, immersing himself in its history, assembling a vast collection of books, articles and newspaper clippings, discussing the game with prominent local players; but, above all, he closely observed, and retained in his mind's eye, the different styles of cricket which he saw being played.
In 1910 James won a scholarship to Queen's Royal College (QRC), the island's premier educational establishment. To his delight he discovered that the masters' room contained among its magnificent collection of classical literature the complete works of Thackeray. Unlike the other boys, who returned home for lunch, James ate his sandwiches in the school and steadily worked his way through all the different volumes. From the beginning, however,Vanity Fair was the outstanding work. For without fully understanding its significance until much later, James as a boy was instinctively drawn to the passions, conflicts and vivid characters of Thackeray's sharp satirical novel. They left a deep impression on him, influencing his own fiction writing and later becoming the central feature of his mature political vision, as he moved away from any attachment to notions of specialized intellectual or political leadership and increasingly recognized that people themselves were the animating force of modern civilization.
QRC was modeled on an English public school. There was an emphasis on the classics, European history and literature, and sport. In particular, its Oxbridge masters instilled in their pupils the gentlemen's code, an ethos of fair play, of what was considered “cricket.” But to the exasperation of his teachers and much to the disappointment of his family, members of the post-emancipation black middle class, James rebelled against the formal discipline of the college. He was conscious of being “a bright boy;” and although eager to absorb everything QRC offered him, he was determined to chart his own course. By the time he left in 1918, James believed himself to be a complete master of himself and of European civilization. But he knew, too, that even as a highly educated black man his opportunities for development were much restricted in the small stratified colonial society of his youth.
During the 1920s James earned his living as a schoolmaster. Indeed for a short time he returned as a teacher to QRC. Among his pupils was Eric Williams, who later became a close friend during James's years in England and America, and who eventually led Trinidad to independence in 1962. But James's creative energies at this time were channeled into his cricket writing and literary activities. Already he had acquired a local reputation as a cricket reporter; but equally he was beginning to be noticed as a promising writer of fiction. One of his first short stories, “La Divina Pastora,” (1927) was included in E. J. O'Brien's collection Best Short Stories (London, 1928). James subsequently published three other short pieces of fiction in the literary journals, Trinidad and The Beacon, which he founded in Trinidad with a number of other aspiring writers—most notably Alfred Mendes, Albert Gomes and Ralph de Boissière.7 James and his literary contemporaries drew much of their creative inspiration from the unexplored, but vibrant life lived by the people in Trinidad's barrackyards. Although conscious of the local disapproval these young writers courted by their orientation towards backstreet life, they were the first to establish it as a rich, native source.
James's own development, initially as a writer of fiction, was intimately connected with his need to transcend the conventional forms of literary expression which he had inherited through his mastery of the formal English tradition. He now sought to incorporate what was distinctive about the Caribbean into his creative writing. James was pushing against the limits of a colonial heritage which increasingly confined him; but he became aware, too, that his own individual experience was part of a more popular movement in the island society itself. For by the late 1920s Trinidad's population was itself beginning to push against the confines of British colonial rule.
In 1932 James sailed for Britain. He carried with him a completed novel, Minty Alley (which was published in 1936), and a drafted biography of Trinidad's labor leader, Andre Cipriani whose growing political prominence had caught James's attention.8 When he arrived James intended to make his way as a writer in London, but his first months living in a small Lancashire cotton town with the cricketer, Learie Constantine, set him on a new course. James discovered revolutionary politics; and the remainder of his life was dedicated to theoretical and practical questions of social transformation. He believed that his relatively late discovery of Marxism, approaching it as he did with an advanced knowledge of European history and civilization, gave him a certain advantage in approaching political problems. It certainly left a distinctive mark on all his work.
In the course of his six-year stay in Britain James emerged as one of the leading members of the Trotskyist movement; he was active in the Independent Labour Party; and he quickly established himself as a powerful spokesman for the cause of colonial emancipation. From the outset, he was much in demand as a public speaker and debater. His appearance and bearing were striking, not least because there were very few black people in Britain at the time, most of them concentrated in London. Indeed, James often recalled later, with wry amusement, how audiences he addressed rarely knew where the West Indies were situated and, believing him to be African, many people commented on his remarkable facility with the English language. But, as he usually responded, it would have been much more remarkable had he not been fluent in the language he had known since birth.
James was an elegant man, more than six feet tall; and he had a reserved, dignified manner. He was always in complete control of himself and his material. At the end of his life he liked to recall his participation in the intense political debates of pre-war Britain, recognizing that his instincts as a young boy to master all aspects of the game of cricket had been an excellent preparation for the rigors of a revolutionary life. Moreover James was confident that his intellectual foundations in the history of European civilization were deep and unshakeable. He had developed an extraordinary memory and an insatiable appetite for reading; and his habit of collecting newspaper clippings and marking up books gave him immediate access to the details of contemporary political battles.
James was well known for his appearance at public meetings. He arrived with his pockets bulging with books and papers; and from these documents he would read carefully selected extracts which exposed the changing positions of his political opponents, most notably the Communist Party. But, above all, what caught the imagination of his audiences was his passion and fluency as an orator; the scope and brilliance of his political analyses; the ease with which he made connections between local political struggles and much broader issues. James had the unusual gift of making his audiences feel part of history. His ability to instil in people an awareness of their participation in the movement and transformation of society was something he retained all his life.
During the 1930s James travelled widely throughout Britain as a political journalist and as cricket reporter for the Manchester Guardian. He published extensively in the New Leader, the weekly newspaper of the Independent Labour Party, covering issues which ranged from the 1935 miners' strike in South Wales to revolutionary developments in Europe and questions of emancipation from colonialism.9
Until 1935, when Mussolini invaded Ethiopia, Africa's only independent country, James's attention was largely focused on the prospect of revolution in Europe. Like many others he believed that the revolution would occur first in Europe, and in its aftermath independence would be granted to the millions of colonial subjects across Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. But the disarray on the Left over Mussolini's imperialist aggression alerted James to the equivocation of European radicals on the question of emancipation; and he was forced, as a black man and colonial subject himself, to re-think a number of important assumptions in revolutionary Marxism. In particular he now acknowledged the importance of building an independent movement of Africans and people of African descent. “Africans must win their own freedom. Nobody will win it for them,” James declared in an important article written for the New Leader in 1936;10 and to this end, he joined his old Trinidadian friend, George Padmore, in organizing the International African Service Bureau which quickly became a leading political organization, coordinating anti-colonial agitation worldwide.
James's growing interest in the relationship between nationalist struggles and a broader revolutionary movement was also stimulated by his historical research into the 1791 San Domingo revolution. Breaking out in the most highly prized of France's colonial possessions, it was the only successful slave uprising in history. The blacks moved, in the wake of revolutionary developments in Paris, to demand their freedom and secured it against the combined efforts of the European powers of the day. James's study, The Black Jacobins, was published in 1938. Here he exposed the internal dynamics of the slave revolution itself, charting its development against the backdrop of international politics and the changing needs of the colonial economy. Thus within an extraodinarily powerful and compelling historical narrative, James skillfully integrated different levels of analysis, revealing the changing relationships between leaders of the uprising and the people, between the ideas of the French revolution and the actions of the slaves, and between the competing colonial powers (Britain, France and Spain) and the leaders of the slave insurrection.
At the center of The Black Jacobins stood the figure of Toussaint L'Ouverture, “one of the most remarkable men of a period rich in remarkable men.” James understood that Toussaint, like other outstanding historical personalities, embodied all the conflicting forces of his age. Subsequently in the 1936 play, Toussaint L'Ouverture, which James drew from his unfinished book manuscript, he attempted to exploit the dramatic dimensions of this great historical figure, casting Paul Robeson in the title role.11
The interpretation which James offered of Toussaint's rise and fall as a revolutionary leader raised central and enduring questions about revolutionary transition; but equally James's understanding of his historical particularity highlighted the new and distinctive features of that age. Toussaint was a symbol of a new world emerging, one in which black people as active political subjects became a powerful force in world history.
James always noted that he wrote The Black Jacobins before the Second World War. Furthermore, he was conscious of the links between the book's appearance (and that of his companion study, The History of Negro Revolt, 1938) and the publication in Paris around the same time of Aimé Césaire's Cahier d'un Retour au Pays Natal (1939) and in America of W.E.B. Du Bois's Black Reconstruction (1935). James interpreted this close coincidence of dates as evidence of a new stage in black consciousness, though not even he anticipated the speed with which the old European empires and America's system of segregation would begin to collapse in the face of popular mobilization after the war.
In 1938 James Cannon of the American Socialist Workers' Party (SWP) visited Britain. He met James and invited him to the United States to address audiences on the European situation as war approached, and to contribute to discussions in the Trotskyist movement on what was then called “the Negro question.” Almost immediately upon arriving in America in October 1938 James embarked on an extensive speaking tour. It took him from the East Coast, through the industrial cities of the mid-west, and into California. Toward the end of his tour, James addressed political activists in Los Angeles, California; and Constance Webb was in the audience for his talk, “The Negro Question.” Immediately after this first meeting, James began the remarkable correspondence with Webb which is published here.
James's tour ended in Mexico. Here he spent several days in discussion with Leon Trotsky, the exiled Russian revolutionary, in an attempt to formulate a coherent position on the race question. The Trotskyist movement had no clear program or organizing strategy which would link its own revolutionary goals with the political struggles of America's black population; but both men were acutely conscious of the importance of this question to the Marxist movement as a whole. The major issues discussed with Trotsky were set out in a document prepared by James. These included self-determination; the relationship between the black struggle for basic democratic rights and the socialist movement; the organization and recruitment of black members; and the education of existing members about the race question.
James, Trotsky and another comrade, Charles Curtiss, reached a broad consensus on most of the issues they discussed. It was agreed that James would write a regular column in the SWP newspaper, Socialist Appeal; and that he would organize a bureau devoted to “Negro affairs.”12 James's work in England during the 1930s had partially prepared him for these tasks. His historical researches had laid important foundations for an understanding of the evolution of the black struggle worldwide; and he had gained valuable organizational experience in George Padmore's International African Service Bureau. But he recognized, too, that the situation in America was new to him in an important way. For James had never encountered racial segregation before. He was acutely aware that his experiences of discrimination as a black man in the Caribbean and later in Britain, were not of the same kind as those which he now faced; and he was apprehensive, being unfamiliar with all the unspoken codes and conventions of a racially divided country.
Before he gained first-hand experience of America's racial laws, making his way back by bus through the southern states to the SWP headquarters in New York, James held further discussions with Trotsky on questions raised by James's book, World Revolution, which he had published in Britain in 1937. This time, however, there was sharp disagreement between the two men. Trotsky accused James of “a lack of dialectical approach, Anglo-Saxon empiricism, and formalism which is only the reverse of empiricism.”13 But James believed it was the exiled leader himself who lacked an understanding of the dialectical method. For Trotsky's vigorous repudiation of key parts of his analysis in World Revolution did nothing to dispel James's notion that Trotsky failed to grasp the movement of historical events—neither at the time of his great struggle with Stalin, nor since.
The political landscape of Europe had been transformed by the Russian Revolution; but the subsequent development of the workers' state under Stalin was inadequately understood on the revolutionary Left. The importance of World Revolution was that it had provided such an interpretation of the critical historical events and the roles played by key personalities. Moreover it articulated a revolutionary position, one which was deeply opposed to the Stalinism of the Soviet Union. In this study of the Communist International, James attempted to examine the process by which Stalin had been able to seize power after Lenin's death and subvert fundamental revolutionary principles. He took Stalin's declaration in 1924 of the doctrine “socialism in one country” as a significant moment. For at a stroke it severed the Soviet Union from the international revolutionary movement; and paved the way for the barbarous suppression of domestic opposition and popular movements abroad.
If James was impressed by the sharp political insights of Trotsky on the race question, he was much less confident of his method and approach to history. James left Mexico with lingering doubts. At the time these unresolved issues did not seem pressing; but they quickly developed into a major political crisis. For, although on his return to New York James planned to give his work on the race question the highest priority, circumstances forced him to respond to the intense debate over the “Russian Question” which was beginning to divide the Trotskyist movement itself.
Until 1939 it was considered unthinkable by those on the revolutionary Left that a political alliance could be forged between Germany and the Soviet Union. But the signing of the Hitler-Stalin Pact urgently posed the problematic nature of the Soviet Union. Was it a workers' state, albeit a degenerated one? Should it, in all circumstances, be defended by the revolutionary Left?
At the SWP Convention in New York held during early April 1940 the status of the Soviet Union was discussed extensively. On the one hand there was the majority faction, supported by Trotsky and led by James Cannon, which argued for the “unconditional defense of the Soviet Union as in no way incompatible with irreconcilable struggle for the overthrow of the Stalin bureaucracy.”14 On the other hand, the minority position articulated by Max Shachtman took an opposing position, refusing to defend the (degenerated) workers' state. James supported the minority. Shortly after their defeat at the Convention, James followed Shachtman and other prominent members, such as Martin Abern, in splitting from the SWP in order to found a new Workers' Party.
For James this was an important moment. The confusion over the status of the Soviet Union sharply exposed fundamental problems which he recognized penetrated to the heart of the revolutionary movement. The situation had been complicated by the fact that what Trotsky symbolized in the struggle against Stalinism was more important for many people, like James, than their commitment to Trotskyism as such. From a contemporary perspective it is often easy to forget that opposition to Stalinism, not least because of its appeal to many European and American intellectuals, was as imperative for James and his political associates as the struggle against bourgeois society.
Just as James had sought in pre-war Britain to articulate through his book, World Revolution, a revolutionary Marxist position which was opposed to the Stalinism of the Soviet Union, so too in the United States he began the process of establishing a coherent approach to a number of key questions. He returned to the writings of Hegel, Marx, Engels and Lenin; and over the course of a decade he, with a handful of collaborators, moved steadily away from the basic tenets of Trotskyism. The fruits of their collective work laid the basis for a new revolutionary Marxism. Specifically, they advocated the independent vitality of the black struggle; they argued for a theory of state capitalism as the means of understanding the nature of the Soviet Union; they developed a Marxism applicable to American conditions; and they broke with the notion of the necessity of a revolutionary vanguard party.
Although many of James's energies were absorbed by the demands of such a profound period of study, he remained active in the day-to-day debates and organizational work of the Workers' Party. Much of this focused around the war. For the revolution in Russia, which had followed the collapse of European civilization in 1914, offered an important historical precedent. The declaration of war in 1939 and America's subsequent involvement in it led those in small groups on the revolutionary Left to believe that in this climate they could stoke the fuel of domestic unrest and industrial conflict, and thus open the way for fundamental social change.
James's public profile was much restricted, however, by his illegal presence in the United States. His entry visa, valid for only six months, had been extended once because of the medical treatment necessitated by his stomach ulcer. But James knew that the political circumstances he found in America offered him a unique challenge. He decided to go into what he called “retirement;” and thereafter he was forced to operate underground. Using the pseudonym, J. R. Johnson, he was able to continue to be a prolific writer, contributing to the major two publications of the WP, Labor Action and the New International. His articles were always distinguished by their passionate language, political precision and extraordinary historical scope. James succeeded not only in educating those inside the movement, weaving together his work on “the Negro question” with central concerns of revolutionary Marxism; but he also played a special role in bringing what had previously been small insular sectarian publications to the wider attention of America's intellectuals.15
Although from time to time James's political work carried him outside New York, it was not easy for him to engage in the kind of agitation among industrial workers which many members of the WP carried out during this period. There had been one notable exception, when in 1941 and 1942 James's activist work took him to southeast Missouri. The exact nature of his participation in the sharecroppers' strike for better wages and conditions has never been clear; but it was, as he describes to Webb, a “tremendous experience.” Certainly as a black man, moving across the poor agricultural areas of the southern borderlands, it must have been as dangerous as it was illuminating.16
By 1943 James emerged as the leader of a small group within the Workers' Party known as the Johnson Forest Tendency. Its name joined James's with that of his chief collaborator, Raya Dunayevskaya (Freddie Forest). Together they had begun a comprehensive study of Marxism, making the question of the Soviet Union an important focus. Dunayevskaya, a Russian emigrant with long experience inside the revolutionary movement, had also developed a position on Stalinist Russia which argued for its interpretation as a form of state capitalism. Later, Grace Lee (Ria Stone), a Chinese-American with a philosophy degree from Bryn Mawr, joined the Johnson Forest Tendency. Pooling their linguistic skills, different backgrounds and training, they quickly emerged as a dominant and formidable force in revolutionary politics. Other prominent members included Freddie and Lyman Paine. Lyman Paine had been a successful architect, a descendant of Tom Paine; and he provided the Tendency, especially James, with much financial support. James often spent weekends and vacations at the Paines' summer house in Northport, Long Island, from where he frequently wrote to Webb.17
One of the distinctive features of James's work at this time was his introduction of a developed historical perspective to the American revolutionary Left. He believed it was indispensable to any understanding of the contemporary political crisis which faced the western world; and an important part of his collaborative work involved a close study of the French, American and Russian revolutions. James in particular was able to draw on his extensive knowledge of European civilization, its history, politics, art and culture, tracing its development through the progressive realization of the democratic idea. At the same time, however, he and his collaborators were seeking to move beyond the confines of a European revolutionary tradition and to embrace the unique conditions of the New World. Their work was animated by their unshakeable conviction that the war heralded fundamental social change. Increasingly they argued that the American people would be at the forefront of the struggle to found the new society, not least the millions of black workers at the center of the industrial machine who formed a unique link between American labor and the millions of colonial peoples worldwide.
But the end of the war in 1945 failed to bring the kind of social upheaval, either in Europe or in America, which the Johnson Forest group had anticipated. Nevertheless, James felt he stood on the threshold of an important political breakthrough, as the collective work in which he had been deeply immersed for almost five years approached fruition. Instinctively he knew it would be decisive. For underpinning it was James's study of the Hegelian dialectic, the changing relationship between thought and society, subject and object, which he was confident would provide the philosophical foundations for a new revolutionary position. It was as yet incomplete, but by 1946 James felt that it lay within his grasp.
Moreover, James was at a turning point in his own personal life. For at last Constance Webb was beginning to reciprocate his affections. During the first five years of their relationship James had conducted an extraordinary campaign by letter to win her love. They had met only once after that first occasion in the Los Angeles church; but with Webb's move to New York in the spring of 1945 James was forced to confront the fact that she remained largely indifferent to his advances. Suddenly however, the dialectical law James was seeking to master in his political work came into forceful play. And at the very moment that he resolved to break the attachment we discover the emergence of a new intimacy. By the summer of 1946 James and Webb were living together in New York. They were married at Fort Lee, New Jersey in May 1946.
Between 1947 and 1950 James and his group published a number of important documents. These ranged from an analysis of the growth and fissures of the Trotskyist movement within American society, to questions of socialism, state capitalism and the Soviet Union, the black struggle, history and the dialectic. Most notable of these publications were The Balance Sheet (1947); The Invading Socialist Society (1947); The Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Problem in the USA (1948); Notes on Dialectics (1948); and State Capitalism and World Revolution (1950).
Taken as a whole, this body of work established an independent revolutionary position, one which enabled James to trace a Marxist lineage directly from the writings of Lenin. For James had come to the conclusion that Trotsky had not just been wrong in his interpretation of history, but that his method for understanding history was fundamentally flawed. Trotsky's thought had never moved dialectically, rather it remained trapped within the old categories of the Russian Revolution. For years the sterile debate between Trotsky and Stalin had clouded these more fundamental questions which were at issue.
But before James made the final break with the movement in which he had worked for nearly twenty years, he and his group first left the Workers Party. A month or so later they applied to rejoin the Socialist Workers Party under the leadership of James Cannon. Although the Johnson Forest group was given considerable autonomy within the SWP, relations were uneasy. Also, the difficulties James and his associates experienced were partly a reflection of the new pressures which increasingly impinged on these small revolutionary groups. The Cold War climate squeezed any kind of radical activity; but equally, it was no longer clear what political role such groups could play in a world transformed by the war. Moreover, James's own position in the United States was no longer secure. The immigration authorities had finally caught up with him, and he had to begin to prepare his case against deportation.
James's situation was further complicated by the fragility of his relationship with Webb. In September 1947, she had left him and returned to California to seek a divorce. Her situation was a difficult one, not least because, as the wife of a revolutionary leader, she found herself plunged into a maelstrom of rivalry and intense factionalism waged among James's political associates; and her anxieties were exacerbated by racial harassment and almost constant FBI surveillance. A temporary reconciliation was achieved between them; and James planned to use his marriage to Webb, an American citizen, as an important part of his case for being allowed to stay. He thought it would make it harder for the government to seek his deportation on technical grounds and force it to reveal the underlying political motives for his exclusion. But James faced a problem. He had acquired a Mexican “mail order” divorce from his first wife, Juanita, a Trinidadian, in order to marry Webb at Fort Lee. The divorce (and hence the marriage) was not, however, recognized as valid; and in 1948 James travelled to Reno, Nevada in order to obtain a second divorce. Webb, now pregnant with their child, remained in New York. They married again in November 1948, and in the following April, their son, Nobbie, was born.
1950 was a watershed year for James. While in Nevada he recognized that he faced the greatest crisis of his life; but he believed he had weathered it, reaching a new level of personal understanding. Furthermore, over the past decade he had established an historical method and laid the philosophical foundations of his future political activity; and he now felt free to explore questions of art, culture and aesthetics. These investigations, however, grew out of the new and original conception of political life which James had developed by the end of his stay in the United States, a conception that had been shaped by the conditions of the New World.
From the moment of his arrival James had been open to the distinctiveness of the United States—its sheer size, its geographical expanse and variation, its revolutionary history and break with Europe, the vitality and independence of its people—and he felt, to his core, the challenge of a new civilization. He was particularly anxious not to repeat the mistake of other European commentators who sought to fit America into “old world” categories, dismissing it as a brash, new society, a cultural and intellectual wasteland deficient in all those features of social life which they identified with civilization.
James thrived in the bustling cosmopolitan world of New York. He moved in literary circles (which included such figures as Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, St. Claire Drake, James Farrell and Carl Van Vechten); he immersed himself in a study of American history and literature, and he enjoyed the popular arts of the American people. He read detective novels, and comic strips; he listened to radio soap operas; he avidly watched all the latest Hollywood movies, and he followed closely the careers of major film stars like Bette Davis, Rita Hayworth, Lana Turner, Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart. James became what he called “a neighborhood man,” immersing himself into the rhythms of everyday life in order to understand better the expectations and aspirations of American men and women, their social relations, and routines of work and leisure.
This dimension of James's work in America was not indicated in his major publications of the 1940s. It was a personal project, remaining largely hidden from view and revealed only in his private correspondence with Constance Webb. Later, however, James sought to synthesize his ideas, intending to present them in a book, suitable for the general reader, which could be “read on a Sunday or on two evenings.” He completed a first draft of his manuscript, American Civilization, in 1950.18
James's interest in America, like that of his predecessor Alexis De Tocqueville, in the nineteenth century, originally stemmed from political questions posed within the context of Europe. Although separated by more than a hundred years, both writers departed for the New World at a time of ferment in Europe, after the political landscape had been transformed by a major event. In De Tocqueville's case this was the French Revolution; for James it was the Russian Revolution. Each man believed that democracy was the moving force in history, and that a study of America— democracy's most powerful symbol—would cast light on its changing forms.
James, in approaching America as a distinctive civilization, sought to grasp the whole at a particular moment, fusing different strands of history, literature, popular art and the details of everyday life into a work of striking originality. It was his view that the American people were distinctive. Unburdened by the weight of European history, they were highly conscious of themselves as individuals and yet their need for community was equally strong. Their search for new, expanded forms of society able to encompass full, free individuality—the need to achieve complete democracy in all aspects of life—was the most advanced manifestation of what James understood to be the aim of modern people everywhere. This was what he called “the struggle for happiness.” He believed that men and women were now the moving force of world civilization, their increasing power and presence the central feature of the contemporary age; and yet, as he recognized, their creative energies had never before been so stifled and fragmented.
James was conscious of the historical moment, writing as the superpowers faced each other across a ruined Europe, threatening repression and destruction on a scale previously unknown in humanity's development. For him, the Cold War rhetoric—freedom versus repression—symbolized the bitter conflict raging within American society. James conceived of his work on America as the first in a series of publications for a general audience which would address the crisis of the contemporary world. His concerns were with no less than the future of humanity itself. The urgency with which he viewed this task undoubtedly intensified his own desire to be allowed to remain in the United States. But his battle to avoid deportation fractured the creative moment. His marriage to Webb foundered; and, as he stood poised to engage with some of the largest and most critical questions facing humanity, he found himself forced back into old forms of political life and association. Although they had once stimulated some of his most original work, they now began to act as a check on his creative energies.
James's ambitious plans for a complex, original work on American civilization were transformed by these circumstances. He was forced to abandon work on his manuscript in order to prepare his legal case; but during 1952, when he was interned on Ellis Island, James took a number of central themes from the 1950 draft and developed them in a critical study of the work of Herman Melville. Mariners, Renegades and Castaways (1953) was published as part of James's plea to be allowed to remain in the United States; but he lost his case and was forced to leave America in 1953.
On his return to Britain in 1953, James attempted to extend his enquiries into literature and criticism which he had begun toward the end of his stay in the United States. Before his departure he had delivered an impressive series of lectures at Columbia University in New York, entitled, “The Idea of Personality in Great Literature,” in which he examined the work of Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Milton, Rousseau, Melville and Dostoevsky. James hoped to use the ideas he advanced here as an important foundation in a broad project which traced the movement of democracy in world civilization, taking works of the creative imagination as an important source. These aspirations were only partly realized as a body of published work, but his concerns found a new outlet in the independence era of the former colonial territories. For James found that his understanding of Shakespeare, particularly Hamlet and King Lear, was immensely enriched by the political developments of the postwar world.19
During the second half of the 1950s James became an active participant in the debates and political activity which surrounded the foundation of the new African and Caribbean nations. George Padmore had played a key role throughout the war years, coordinating the different independence movements; but his organization had been boosted by the arrival in London of Kwame Nkrumah, a man dedicated to winning freedom for Africa's Gold Coast. James had already met Nkrumah in New York, and he had been impressed by his political determination. He followed closely his subsequent career, a new phase beginning in 1947 when Nkrumah returned home to build a mass movement to challenge colonial power. Within a decade Ghana, under Nkrumah's leadership, had become the first independent African state and James was invited by Nkrumah to Accra for the independence celebrations. Although James remained convinced that the Gold Coast revolution was a powerful symbol of a new stage in the progressive realization of the democratic ideal, he did not shirk from criticizing the later political developments which finally culminated in Nkrumah's overthrow. For, as James recognized in the dedication of his book Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution (1962), “Like Cromwell and Lenin, [Nkrumah] initiated the destruction of a regime in decay—a tremendous achievement; but like them, he failed to create the new society.”20
In 1958, at the invitation of his old friend, Eric Williams, James returned to Trinidad. He had been away for twenty-six years; but as the Caribbean islands now approached independence, James relished the chance to be part of this unique historical moment. He believed it to be full of creative possibilities, a time of transition when fundamental questions concerning political life were unusually clarified. His highest priority, however, was to engage the Caribbean people fully in the discussions about the form of the new society. As editor of The Nation he opened his newspaper columns to debate; he addressed public meetings; and he wrote extensively about the issues he believed to be important, publishing Modern Politics in 1960 and Party Politics in the West Indies in 1962.21 But his lengthy appendix to a new edition of The Black Jacobins perhaps best illustrates James's thinking at this time. Its title, “From Toussaint L'Ouverture to Fidel Castro,” reveals the contours of a Caribbean identity he was seeking to expose.
Although James recognized that questions of nationhood and national identity were central to the historical moment, he insisted on linking them decisively to the modern phase in the evolution of world society. He had no time for the narrow, small-island mentality of the emerging political leadership; and his own political alliance with Eric Williams quickly foundered. James was wholeheartedly committed to the conception of a West Indian Federation, a unified polity consisting of all the islands (British, Dutch, French and Spanish) to be built through popular mobilization. In his view, such a formation would not only stand against the divisive, old-style European nationalisms, but, expressive of the fundamental movement of twentieth-century society, it would anticipate political forms of the future.
James recognized the particular role played by Caribbean novelists, artists and cricketers in laying the foundations for a new Caribbean identity. He believed that the innovative quality of novels written by Wilson Harris or George Lamming, the new styles of cricket played by Garfield Sobers or Frank Worrell, were the cultural counterparts of the popular movement to establish new political forms.
It was in this climate of intense debate that James completed his book Beyond A Boundary. But increasingly hounded by Williams and marginalized by the new Caribbean leadership, James left Trinidad on the eve of its independence in 1962. He returned to London, and in the following year his book was published to enthusiastic reviews. Although it is widely regarded as the greatest book ever written on cricket, James announced in its opening pages that it was neither a book on cricket nor an autobiography.
Beyond A Boundary may be considered the only text James was able to complete from the ambitious writing program he had outlined at the end of his stay in the United States. It is inseparable from the project on American culture and society which James had pursued with such imagination and tenacity during the 1940s.22 Indeed, the letters to Constance Webb and American Civilization form the indispensable link between James's early writings and this, his last major publication. For although James returned to London to excavate some of his earliest experiences and explore aspects of his formation, it was with a mature vision. Within this book he finally transcended the divisions of old European bourgeois society: the separation of art and life, culture and politics, intellectuals and people. It had been his experience of living in America which gave him a new integrated perspective on the world, but if he failed to realize it within his own life, Beyond A Boundary became its most brilliant literary expression.
In his last three decades James travelled extensively. He continued his engagement with the immense political problems which faced the new independent nations in Africa and the Caribbean, and he was a distinguished participant in radical debates in Europe and the United States. During the 1970s James held teaching posts in a number of American universities, and, with the reprinting of many of his major works, he became widely known to a new generation of young people. In particular he was rediscovered as one of the century's leading revolutionary figures, and he was much celebrated as a black icon. Although he was claimed by different constituencies James always refused to be confined, for his vision was truly universal. In 1981 he finally settled in London, remaining active as a writer and receiving many visitors at his home. James died, after a short illness, on May 31, 1989.
1 Constance Webb has written a short memoir of this meeting, “C.L.R. James, The Speaker and his Charisma,” published in Paul Buhle, ed. C.L.R. James: His Life and Work, London: Allison and Busby, 1986.
2 Unpublished autobiography, n.d.(Manuscript courtesy of Constance Webb).
3 As James himself wrote in a letter from Reno, Nevada to Lyman Paine: “There is a terrible discrepancy between the range, the boldness, the philosophical basis, the concreteness of our ideas and the miserable little place that we do hold, both as a group and individually. There is this constant underlying strain, exasperation, impotence and frustration. It is organic.” (2nd October 1948).
4 American Civilization, p. 167.
5 “Autobiography of a Man by Him,” letter from James to Webb 1944. [
6 One of the most valuable sources on James's Caribbean formation is his own Beyond A Boundary, London: Stanley Paul/Hutchinson, 1963.
7 “Triumph,” 1929; “Turner's Prosperity,” 1929; and “The Star That Would Not Shine,” 1931. “La Divina Pastora” and “Triumph” are reprinted in The C.L.R. James Reader, ed. Anna Grimshaw, Oxford, UK and Cambridge, Mass: Blackwell 1992; “Turner's Prosperity” in Spheres; and “The Star That Would Not Shine” in Rendezvous.
8 Published privately in Nelson as The Life of Captain Cipriani (1932). An abridged version, The Case for West Indian Self Government, was published by Leonard Woolf as a Day To Day pamphlet in 1933; and it is reprinted in the Reader.
9 For a list of these writings, see the bibliography of the Reader.
10 “Civilizing the ‘Blacks’: Why Britain Needs To Retain Her African Possessions,” New Leader May 1929, 1936.
11 The reviews of Peter Godfrey's production at the Westminster Theatre, London in March 1936 were in fact critical of James's failure to turn history into drama. A reviewer for the Manchester Guardian wrote: “It is one of the theatre's paradoxes that within its walls truth tends to become duller than fiction. Mr. C.L.R. James justly asserts that his play on Toussaint, performed this afternoon by the Stage Society, is substantially true to history. This faithfulness it must be which has made stirring events seem so static.” (March 1936). Another critic for the Daily Telegraph commented: “. . . this stage account of the chief liberator of Haiti is written from the heart. But Mr. James is a journalist (he writes about cricket for a great provincial newspaper) and not a dramatist. He knows his facts, but not how to marshall them for stage effect” (17th March 1936). James revised the play during the 1960s, and re-titled it, The Black Jacobins. The full text is reprinted in the Reader.
12 Discussions were originally published in the SWP's Internal Bulletin with the identity of the participants disguised through use of pseudonyms. James was J. R. Johnson, Trotsky was Crux, and Curtiss (the Fourth International's representative in Mexico) was Carlos. They were later reprinted in Rendezvous. For details of James's writing in Socialist Appeal, see bibliography of the Reader.
13 The discussion of World Revolution by Trotsky and James was also published in SWP Internal Bulletin, and reprinted in Rendezvous.
14 Socialist Appeal, April 13, 1940.
15 See Paul Buhle's biography of James: The Artist as Revolutionary, London: Verso, 1988, p. 82. For a bibliography of these writings, see Reader.
16 James was involved in preparing the pamphlet, “Down With Starvation Wages in South-East Missouri” (Local 313 of the Union of Canning, Agricultural Packing and Allied Workers-CIO), St. Louis 1942. It is reprinted in Future. For details of unsigned columns in Labor Action on the strike, probably written by James, see bibliography of Reader.
17 Aside from this small group, other individuals associated with the Johnson Forest Tendency are referred to by James in his correspondence with Webb. They include: William Gorman, Philomena Daddario, Nettie Kravitz, Martin Glaberman, Cecelia Lang, Norman and Selma Weinstein.
18 Published as American Civilization, eds. Anna Grimshaw and Keith Hart, Oxford UK and Cambridge, Mass: Blackwell 1993; originally entitled Notes on American Civilization (1950).
19 For a discussion of the documents which make up this unfinished project, see Grimshaw “Popular Democracy and The Creative Imagination,” and James's “Preface To Criticism,” excerpted in the Reader.
20 Nkrumah and The Ghana Revolution, London: Allison and Busby, 1982.
21 For details of James's other writings, especially his journalism, see bibliography of the Reader.
22 See “Popular Democracy and The Creative Imagination,” note 19 above.
Source: Special Delivery: The Letters of C.L.R. James to Constance Webb, 1939-1948, edited and introduced by Anna Grimshaw (Oxford, UK; Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1996); pp. 1-35.