Any "introduction" to James's life and work, by way of anthology or collected views on him, faces one almost insurmountable problem. As Martin Glaberman noted in the first anthology of James's selected writings (edited and published by this writer as Radical America, Volume IV, Number 4, May 1970), the sheer range eternally evokes the question, "where does one begin?" Happily, our beginning does not have to be so rudimentary as eleven years ago. A growing number of James's works are readily available in commercial editions throughout the English-speaking world. We anticipate confidently that an autobiography will soon be completed. And surely, as the world crisis brings another generation of insurgents to the fore, many of James's now less available studies will receive the proper attention. Already, many readers of this symposium will be familiar with James the Pan-Africanist historian of The Black Jacobins, the political visionary of the post-Vanguard Party age, and (especially in Britain) the West Indian and British commentator on sports and culture. We mean here only to sketch out the general contours of James's life, his travels, the main periods of his political and theoretical endeavors, and the specific influences which have prompted this volume.
James was born in 1901 in Trinidad, in the kind of family that used to be called "poor but honest," driven down economically but determined to hold onto self-respect and the ideals of education and upward mobility. Like many revolutionary artists, he had a mother devoted to literature as her time and energies would allow. Several of the following essays show how James might well have become a provincial schoolteacher but, through love for cricket, felt drawn toward the common pastimes of the West Indian masses. When I asked James recently why Ireland and the West Indies had produced so many great literary figures, he answered simply that young people of talent had no other options — as if to say that becoming a writer had, negatively speaking, been for him as well the only means to use the available political and intellectual resources. But surely there is a positive side: fiction about daily life in the slums, about the education of a young intellectual learning about that life (Minty Alley) offered a synthesis of James's background, training, cultural and political proclivities.
So while James took a hand in the emerging West Indian literature by way of editing and writing, and ultimately drew a novel from his experiences, he became a self-consciously and primarily political intellectual only after he had removed to Britain. One might have thought, from his political work and cricket journalism there, that he had found his calling as an editor-agitator and his vocation as a sports reporter. In addition to the pioneering Pan-African agitation that various authors describe below, James served as Chairman of the Finchley Independent Labor Party branch, wrote for the ILP press, and after the Trotskyists' abandonment of that organization became editor of their own newspaper, Fight. With the publication of Boris Souvaraine's Stalin under James's translation, The Black Jacobins and World Revolution, along with the History of the Negro Revolt and The Case for West Indian Self- Government, he had proved to be an international historical and political author. Here again, he had established a promising (second or third) career and intellectual self-identity.
His fifteen-year sojourn in the U.S. represents in many ways the most curious and personally obscure part of James's life. Foremost intellectual in a small but lively Trotskyist organization with any number of fledgling luminaries (Irving Howe, Dwight MacDonald, B. J. Widick and Harvey Swados, to name only a few), he published not a single book outside the movement's own miniscule press until the very end of his stay. He edited no newspapers himself, and contributed only occasionally to the theoretical journal, The New International. When his collaborators and followers launched their own political movement, centered in Detroit, he remained in New York within an intellectual and cultural orbit that Marxist politics never fully encompassed. And yet he produced, in those years, the intellectual corpus of his philosophical-analytical advance beyond the notions of the Vanguard Party, his critique of State Capitalism and State Socialism as the stage of class formation to be overcome, and his cultural critique of industrial society through the pages of Moby Dick. Scarcely a handful of Americans outside his political group had even heard of James, let alone understood his contribution, by the time of his expulsion in 1953.
The answer lies in the peculiar conditions imposed upon James personally and politically in those years. Unlike other intellectual giants whom immigration brought to American radicalism — Morris Winchevsky, Daniel DeLeon and Moissye Olgin, to name three — James was Black and an illegal. He had to keep a low profile. Even more important, the almost shadowy character of the Left-opposition to the Communist Party held an entire milieu from public gaze. Its writers gained attention as individuals only when they abandoned revolutionary politics for culture or delivered denunciations of Stalinism in favor of bourgeois democracy. Moreover, the very quest of the faction that broke with Trotsky became contact with working class life and collective development of theoretical-strategic-tactical options. James submerged his independent identity as a writer into a maelstrom of debates, discussions and reconsiderations. In this he followed the relentless dedication of the Old Bolsheviks at the very moment when he ruled so many of their propositions archaic for modern conditions.
He did not submerge his intellectual, cultural personal identity so thoroughly as the now-forgotten rank-andfile militants around him. He remained one of the handful of Blacks, even fewer West Indians in such circles and that alone would have divided his sentiments and interests. It should be remembered also that the metropolis, then perhaps in the most hopeful years of an emerging multi-racial identity, had secrets which could be revealed only to the participants of its day- and night-life. On rare occasions, the political documents of the era bear hints of this participation: James feels he is part of a new civilization struggling to be born, not abstractly as the intellectual might imagine, through mass acceptance of blazing new ideologies, but concretely human as the characters in Minty Alley.
James's own group, which in the early 1950's began to publish the bi-weekly Correspondence in Detroit, picked up on many of the same hints. Daily Worker sportswriters struggled for decades to make commercial entertainment a legitimate concern of Left journalism, while "Culture" in general never really got beyond the logicchopping of whether film, play or novel should be judged as "objectively" progressive or reactionary. The Trotskyist publications rarely did much better. Correspondence, by contrast, had the ethos of the working class in labor and recreation, readers' own often brilliant commentaries upon sports and movies, teenagers' views of the generational conflict, Blacks' and whites' attitudes toward each other, and women's observations about their special sense of oppression. If the notion of "Workers Correspondence" had originated with the pre-Stalinized Communists of the 1920's, a way for workers to write about their own conditions and struggles, Correspondence carried the idea beyond the limits of the Third International concept of insurrection into a fuller perception of what the New Left would call "daily life." The greatest strength of this vital and unique experiment in working class politics was that it could bring the cultural sense of flow together with the struggles against the labor bureaucracy, shown vividly in the wildcat strikes of the time.* The weaknesses might be traced to limited resources, the political pall of McCarthyism and other factors, but rested ultimately upon the still-unresolved dilemma of the political stage beyond the Vanguard Party. What should the small group be and do? James's physical presence in the U.S. would at least have accelerated the discussion of the problem which would torture and destroy the New Left fifteen years later.
James's exile brought him hither and yon, from Britain to the West Indies and back again. As he said later about his university teaching in the U.S., "Life presents you with some strange difficulties and, at times, you have to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds." His versatility served him well. Facing Reality drew the lessons of the Hungarian Revolution, later to become so plain in France of 1968 and Poland of the present. Modern Politics, a series of lectures delivered in the West Indies and published (then immediately suppressed) in 1960, drew the widest interpretation of civilization, culture and politics as the inevitable background for Socialism's promise and necessity. Party Politics in the West Indies, published the next year in Trinidad, focused in upon problems of anti-imperialism and political transformation, as did "Nkrumah Then And Now," written a few years later but published only in 1978 as Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution. Beyond A Boundary (1963), in part an autobiography, has been proclaimed far and wide for its more apparent element, the best historical study of cricket anywhere. Some of James's best public moments have come when he undertook the editorship of the Nation in Trinidad, mixing superb popularization of the European cultural legacy with an insistence upon the West Indian contribution to the world's future, and when the rise of Black Power recalled James to American platforms where he could exert an extraordinary influence upon a new generation, one-by-one or in considerable numbers through his lectures, personal presence and achieved status as Pan-African eminence grise.
The delayed influence of his writings, along with his more recent activity, have resulted specifically in the impulse behind the publication of this volume. Its immediate precursor, the Radical America anthology noted above, marked James's impact upon a New Left at the crisis moment of its short existence. Radical America had just come to perform duties of an historical-theoretical organ (albeit unofficial) for SDS, to project beyond the phase of student power some wider vision of constituency and deeper view of transformation. Even by the late 1960's, James was hardly more than the author of The Black Jacobins for most New Leftists. But there was an infallible logic to the connection. For if the New Left were not simply to return to worn-out dogmas, Stalinist, Trotskyist, Social-Democratic, Anarchist (however painted over with new titles: Maoist, "Democratic Socialist," Euro-Communist, Hippie), it had to advance conceptually and politically toward some new notion of the political group, the working class, racial minorities, women, and international revolution. New Leftists stood on ground closer to James and his co-thinkers than to any of the elder politicos and their tendencies. Here, it must be said, the seeming obscurity of the 1940's Trotskyist context hurt: the language of the pamphlets, references to old enemies and old doctrines, seemed just beyond the reach of many potential readers. And the New Left itself passed so quickly from boom to bust, wild mass demonstrations to defeat and debacle, that there was not much time or space for serious discussion anyway. In a deeper sense, the crisis in the Movement (including Black Liberation and Women's Liberation) demanded a definite political answer to the stage beyond militance, that History had not revealed and James had not sought to disclose. Intellectually, James's influence through The Black Jacobins and Radical America had the more subtle role of coaching a generation of social historians dedicated to reconstructing the past, and bringing a relative handful of activists toward some theoretical alternatives to neo-Stalinism and Euro- Communism. More, it could not do.
Among the younger generation of Afro-American scholars and activists, James has had an almost wholly separate but equally important influence. Through Federal City College and Howard University, where he taught in the 1970's, his ideas radiated outward. A group of SNCC veterans had already reprinted A History of the Negro Revolt as A History of the Pan-African Revolt. Dignitary-militant, his own public suggestion responsible for initiating the Sixth Pan-African Congress, James took every occasion to elucidate the real history of struggle, his unrelenting interest in current developments on the Afro-American scene, and his encouragement to all sincere rebels.
Finally — and this explains the current format — James's influence has touched still newer chords as the 1980's open. Not only are his books now available as never before, his ideas have helped guide some of those currents which emerged from the 1970's slough into another stage of activity. Subtly, the process has long been in development, as one or another of the existing alternatives demonstrated their liabilities. It is natural that STO, with its roots in the "industrialization" of the New Left and in the supreme significance of the Black presence in the U.S., and which has long recognized the relevance of James's thought to its own concerns, should devote this special issue of Urgent Tasks to a critical appreciation of his work.
This publication is also an experiment in collective biography. It brings to this editor's mind a commemorative document published for another intellectual leader who espoused the cause of workers' self-emancipation, Daniel DeLeon.** The differences in the men and in documentation are perhaps finally suggestive of our larger purpose here. Five years after DeLeon had died, the Socialist Labor Party's National Executive Committee issued the earlier book as a sentimental evocation and as a vindication of the leader's activities. That was natural because DeLeon had single-handedly dominated the SLP and its press, alienating almost everyone else on the Left by his sectarianism but rendering himself a monument in his restricted circle. Although an extreme case, he was a typical political type of our modern age. James, by contrast, has no organization to sing hosannas. And rather than concentrating his energies (as he might have done, with greater or lesser success) on building up a following, he has for most of his political life been an instigator rather than an executive, dividing his talents into the various possible arenas of revolutionary promise. To most readers, the totality of his work has therefore remained elusive. Our effort has been to solicit commentary upon the diverse and sometimes recondite aspects of his work, to tie the whole together piecemeal.
Neither, the reader will notice, are the essays wholly uncritical. James the strapping octogenarian is by no means ready for eulogies. In a life crowded with activities there have inevitably been shortcomings, and indeed our purpose has been to put the entire person into context as much as possible, while accentuating the contributions he has made.
The reader will have to assemble the pieces into a single albeit variegated picture. James has always demanded more than passive admiration from those who take his work seriously. We welcome you into the pages of James's life. We think you will leave somewhat affected, for we have ourselves been touched, changed, subtly enriched such that we cannot imagine a political universe, a cultural perspective, a sense of what Humankind has been and might become, without the wisdom and sly humor of C. L. R. James.
— Paul Buhle
*It might be noted also that another journal of the 1970's, this author's own Cultural Correspondence, was in turn named after the paper of James's group and their cultural initiatives most especially, with the intention of filling in that missing category in Left thought.
**Daniel DeLeon, the Man and His Work: A Symposium (New York, 1919).